Literature Review: The Early Stages of my Research.

"Thoughtful Reader" by Franz Dvorak (1862-1927)

“Thoughtful Reader” by Franz Dvorak (1862-1927)

I will be pursuing a thesis focused on Grendel’s mother from the Old English poem Beowulf, Guinevere’s mother from the Arthurian romance The Awntyrs off Arthur and the Pearl maiden from the allegorical Middle English poem Pearl. I will be consulting the following editions of the primary texts: The Beowulf Manuscript translated and edited by R.D. Fulk (Harvard 2010), The Awntyrs off Arthur edited by Thomas Hahn and available online thanks to Robbins Library Digital Projects and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience edited by J. J. Anderson (J. M. Dent 1996).

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

Turne Wathelan: The site where “The Awntyrs off Arthur” is to have occurred.

I will be exploring three potential connections between these texts: the depiction of landscape, how knowledge is gained through a strange encounter, and the representation of these women as figures of authority. It was the similarity in the descriptions of landscape in The Awntyrs off Arthur and Beowulf that inspired this topic. I hope that Catherine Clark’s Literary Landscapes and the Idea of England 700-1400 will support and inform this aspect of my research topic (D.S. Brewer, 2006).

I am interested in the significance of water in the lanscape and how it is associated with these female characters.

I am interested in the significance of water in the landscape and how it is associated with these female characters.

I would particularly like to pursue the presence of water in the texts and their association with these female characters. The article “Living on the Ecg: The Mutable Boundaries of Land and Water in Anglo-Saxon Contexts” in A Place To Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes edited by Clare A. Lees and Gillian R. Overing will be most helpful in discussing this topic (Pennsylvania 2006).

An Illustration from the "Pearl" Manuscript.

An Illustration depicting the landscape of Paradise from the “Pearl” Manuscript.

In relation to the landscape of Pearl I have found The Pearl: An Interpretation by P. M. Kean most helpful as it provides a detailed discussion of the various landscapes within the poem (Routledge 1967). I will be focusing specifically on the following chapters: “The Garden of Loss”, “The Earthly Paradise” and “The Heavenly City”. Within this text Kean provides a chapter entitled “Encounter” which leads me to the next aspect of this research project, knowledge gained through strange encounters.

I will exploring how Grendel's mother, Guinevere's mother and the Pearl maiden impart knowledge to the protagonists.

I will exploring how Grendel’s mother, Guinevere’s mother and the Pearl maiden impart knowledge to the protagonists of their respective texts.

Image by Nele Vermeylen.

In Pearl and The Awntyrs off Arthur the Pearl maiden and the ghost of Guinevere’s mother communicate significant otherworldly insights to the protagonists of the texts. As well as Kean’s work I will also be consulting Pearl in its Setting by Ian Bishop in this regard (Blackwell 1968). Bishop provides a comprehensive interpretation of the allegory and symbolism within Pearl; I hope that the chapter discussing “The Conduct of the Debate” will offer an interesting perspective on the eschatological discussion that takes place between the dreamer and the Pearl maiden. Bishop’s work will equally benefit my research by refining my understanding of the Pearl maiden; there are several chapters dedicated to analysing the rationale for the depiction of the Maiden: “The Figure of the Child”, “The Function and Meaning of the Image of the Pearl”, “The Description of the Maiden” and “The Significance of the Maiden’s Livery”.

Mememto Mori

The deceased coming to warn the living about the afterlife.

Drawing by Jason McKittrick.

The strange encounter in the romance The Awntyrs of Arthur directed me to the macabre in literature and I will be consulting Philippa Tristram’s Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature to increase my awareness of this tradition (Elek 1976). I have also found Stephen H. A. Shepherd’s “The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne” in Middle English Romances most helpful in this regard because the glossed and annotated text is accompanied by a concise criticism that highlights possible sources (Norton 1995). Shepherd also includes The Trental of St. Gregory which is alluded to in The Awntyrs off Arthur and two exempla about similar domestic macabre encounters from the Gesta Romanorum. Other works that I will rely upon for a comprehensive understanding of the text include: “The Awntyrs off Arthure” in A. C. Spearing’s Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge 1985) and “The Awntyrs off Arthure: Structure and Meaning A Reassessment” by Helen Phillips in Arthurian Literature volume twelve edited by James P. Carley and Felicity Riddy (D.S. Brewer 1993).

Grendel's mother is not vocal, therefore, I will be focusing on  Beowulf's descent through the mere into her lair and the way she is depicted in different translations.

Grendel’s mother is not vocal therefore, I will be focusing on Beowulf’s descent through the mere into her lair and the way she is depicted in different translations.

In relation to Beowulf I will be suggesting that Beowulf’s decision to descend to Grendel’s mother’s lair is symbolic of seeking this otherworldly knowledge and I will be supporting this notion by relating it a similar scene in Grettir’s Saga translated by Jesse Byock (Oxford 2009). Unlike the Pearl maiden and the ghost of Guinevere’s mother, Grendel’s mother is not vocal. In this instance I would like to suggest it is the conscious inversion of the language before and during her fight scene with Beowulf and Hrothgar’s apprehension regarding the sword Beowulf finds in her lair that conveys a similar sense of foreshadowing and a supernatural knowledge of future events. This will require a thorough reading of different translations.

"Translating Beowulf" by Hugh Magennis

“Translating Beowulf” by Hugh Magennis

I will be using Fulk’s translation as my principal text because his edition places the Anglo Saxon poem within its manuscript context. Hugh Magennis’ analysis of the various translations of Beowulf in his work: Translating Beowulf: Modern Versions In English Verse will do much to inform this aspect of the project (Boydell and Brewer 2011). I hope to learn more about the translation process by consulting the essay “The Philologer Poet: Seamus Heaney and the Translation of Beowulf” by Daniel Donoghue in his Norton Critical Edition: Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism (2002). An examination into the depiction of Grendel’s mother would be incomplete without addressing the representation of women in Old English literature; New readings on women in Old English literature edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen will be crucial to strengthening my argument (Indiana 1990). Other texts that will prove useful in this regard include: Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf by Gillian R. Overing (Illinois 1990), Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts edited by Elaine Treharne for the English Association (D.S. Brewer 2002) and Poetry, Place, and Gender: Studies in Medieval Culture in Honour of Helen Damico edited by Catherine E. Karkov (Michigan 2009).

"The Second Sex"

Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.

The depiction of Grendel’s mother, Guinevere’s mother and the Pearl maiden is an important aspect of the research project because these female figures are simultaneously portrayed as figures of authority and othered within their respective texts. I will be re-reading the “Introduction” and “Myths: Dreams, Fears, Idols” from Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, as she provides an in-depth documented history on the depiction of women as Other (Jonathan Cape 2009).

Literature Review

This is a cursory review of the relevant works that I have consulted and hope to read in preparation for this thesis. I hope to diversify my research by seeking out similarly related books, journals and articles.

Image by Joel Robinson.

Images Cited

Dvorak, Franz. Thoughtful Reader. 2012. Bokläsning I Konsten: 1 December.  Bokmania. Painting. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

Grendel’s Mother. N. d., Beowulf Photo Gallery. About.com Comic Books. Photograph. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

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

Leslie, Rob. Fire Water. 2013. Rob Leslie Photography. Leslie Media. Photograph. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

McKittrick, Jason. Memento Mori. 2008. Memento Mori. Deviant Art. Drawing. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

Pearl Poet. N. d.Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia. JPG. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Robinson, Joel. A Stack of Books Meant to be Read Aloud. 2012. March 2012 Archives. Book Patrol: A Haven for Book Culture. Photograph. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

“The Second Sex.” N. d. Barnes & Noble. Image. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

“Translating Beowulf: Modern Versions in English Verse (Hugh Magennis) 9781843842613.” N. d. Boydell & Brewer. Image. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

Vermeylen, Nele. Supernatural Knowledge. 2008. Deviant Art. Photoshop CS3. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.

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“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.

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