I'm starting to work on an article on The Alliterative Morte Arthure. What follows is a bit, emphasis on bit, of new material intercut with a conference paper. So, there might be some incoherence, and of course, this all needs to be fleshed out much, much more. As such, I haven't yet put in notes and references, etc. I take the Eric Auerbach defense--most of my books are packed away or at least out of reach because of boxes. I'm also still trying to figure out the blog medium, where pieces aren't quite finished products and can be informal. It is difficult to put unfinished work out there. The short piece below might be considered, then, more as notes working toward a larger idea.
Ok, enough preemptive apologetics.
Lately, I've been reading Moses and Monotheism by Freud. On a literal level, it is difficult to take Freud's exegesis of Jewish history seriously, but his reading of originary and primal trauma into the books of Moses is fascinating nonetheless. For some reason that I haven't fully articulated yet, Freud's meditations on Moses make me think of Arthur. Arthur is a bit Moses-like in the way that he is such a foundational figure for a nation (though Brutus might be a better candidate here). But, what attracts me most to Arthur is how, like Moses, his story presents the core of a people and its history, but also conceals darker truths. For Freud, hidden away inside the stories of Moses is the forging of a people in the wake of a murder. With Arthur, the many conflicting stories and traditions about him seem, to me at least, to perfectly capture the deeply anxious currents of British history. As many have noted, there are several main representations of Arthur: for example, there is the French Arthur of medieval romance, and there is the more martial Arthur of the chronicle tradition. But beyond that, there is the messianic version of Arthur, the once and future king. Against this, though much of the time they seem to coexist, is the Arthur of translatio imperii. Either Arthur will return and bring a sort of New Jerusalem for England with him, or he is but one more cast off in the relentless march of history. History is either a story of return and triumph, or it's a story of endless replacement, and displacement.
All this brings me to the giant in The Alliterative Morte Arthure. I want to consider how the giant represents a past that has been displaced, yet it does not appear to lose any of its vitality, or its ability to haunt the present with thoughts of the future. The giant, I might suggest, conjures the specter as Derrida defines it—a haunting presence, a remnant of the past, which conjures the untimely, where the present moment is alien to itself.
In the longer piece I'm working on, I want to reflect some on the romance episodes in the text. I should, however, briefly sketch how I’m using the term “medieval romance.” I am not aiming to work toward a firm definition of the genre, especially considering how fluid the genre is in its many examples. Rather, I am interested in exploring the function of certain elements of medieval romance, namely its temporal qualities. John Finlayson writes in his “Definitions of Medieval Romance,” “The romance is contemporaneous in its manners, dress, and architecture, but totally outside of time and place in its actions.” Working outside of time is not to suggest a general sense of atemporality. Rather, I would argue that the tendency of medieval romance to be unmoored from a rigid sense of temporality opens a space to reflect more deeply on historical questions. Frederic Jameson, in the Political Unconscious, refers to romance as a “place of narrative heterogeneity”, a genre that offers “the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms.” It is these other “historical rhythms” that I am after in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. It might be more appropriate, though, to replace “historical rhythm” with “temporal spasm”. Episodes such as Gawain’s encounter with Priamus, or Arthur’s dream of Fortune’s wheel, suggest moments where temporalities clash, and in this clash might be evidence of historical trauma.
Like many of the episodes in the poem, the encounter between Arthur and the giant is soaked in history. Arthur’s tangling with the giant occurs in the first quarter of the poem, and happens almost immediately after landing in Normandy. In a significant difference from the chronicle sources, Arthur seeks out the giant completely on his own, without any reconnaissance by his knights. At almost every turn, the poet augments the importance of this encounter. Not only is the giant given one of the most vivid and gruesome portraits of medieval literature, but elsewhere in the poem other giants are reduced by omission or humor to make it clear that the “Saint” of the Mount, as Arthur jokingly calls him, is a different beast altogether. This nameless creature is a conflation of Retho from the chronicles and another giant of St. Michel’s Mount, expanding the role of this single giant. In this episode, Arthur reenacts an originary moment of conquest. When his ancestors first settled the Island, it was populated by giants that needed to be destroyed so that the British could settle. But again, Arthur is already a great King and does not need to prove himself as a hero. More than just replaying past conquests, however, this episode foreshadows Arthur’s fall. The giant is always anachronistic--he exists to be displaced. His pastness, then, is not in question. But, I want to begin to think through how this pastness must always come with a sense of a troubled futurity.
At first, though, the episode appears to occupy an atemporal space, being a titanic battle between Good and Evil. John Finlayson, in his "Arthur and the Giant of St. Michael's Mount," describes the giant as a “Grendel-like combination of arch-fiend and human reprobate, for what is stressed most in the monster is … his anti-Christian conduct, the eating of the baptized children, and the general disorder he creates among Arthur’s people.” Finlayson demonstrates how the poet highlights the giant’s feast of “crysmede childyre” (1051) beyond his sources, thus emphasizing the giant’s status as an enemy of Christendom. Nothing redeems the monster, and the only answer to his fiendish suppression of the people is his death at the hands of the King. For Finlayson, Arthur’s championing the side of Good is not a mere convention, but instead heightens the ultimate trajectory of the poem, “the Fall of a great and Christian conqueror due to his desertion of that championship of justice and right which originally made him great.” Arthur’s heroic defeat of the giant certainly does establish him as a great and Christian conqueror who will fall from a great height, but the aftermath of the encounter raises troubling questions. After defeating the giant, Arthur generously distributes the fiend’s horde of treasure—more than was in Troy when it fell we are told—but he lays claim to two specific items: “‘Haue I the kyrtyll and Þe clubb, I coueite noghte ells’” (1191). The club stands in stark contrast to the “anlace” that Arthur finally kills his adversary with. Finlayson reads the use of this small dagger as a trust in God, thus emphasizing Arthur’s role here. Metaphorically, however, Arthur uses the club more than the anlace later in his Continental campaign. He ceases to deliver just retribution to a tyrant, but instead becomes a tyrant himself and beats other nations into submission. The symbol of Arthur as a tyrant or unjust ruler is the “kyrtill” that he keeps for himself. As tribute, the giant demanded the shaven beards of those he subjugated: “It es hydede all with hare hally al ouere / And bordyrde with the berdez of burlyche kyngez” (1001-02). He then constructed a garment out of them. By taking these items, Arthur appropriates their symbolic meaning for himself. When the Roman Senators approach him in supplication after their defeat, Arthur orders that they shave their beards (2331-35). Victorious, Arthur exacts further revenge by humiliating his opponents. He emasculates them, and takes his own tribute—a fitting reversal considering that it was the demand of tribute that began the whole affair. Arthur, then, continues the pattern.
Not only does the king appropriate the symbolic weight of the giant through his taking of the girdle and the club, he begins to resemble the giant in action. At the end of the poem, Arthur orders the death of Mordred’s children:
‘And sythen merke manly to Mordrede children,
That they bee sleyghely slayne and slongen in watyrs—
Latt no wykkyde wede waxen ne wrythe one this erthe!’ (4320-22)
Of all the ways that the poet alters his sources, perhaps this detail causes the most discomfort. In the chronicle sources, Mordred’s two sons rise up against Constantine and are slain. The alliterative poet, however, has Mordred’s offspring be children. Both the giant’s cannibalism of “crysmede childyre” (1051) and Arthur’s order to slay children are innovations and additions by the poet. Given the emphasis placed upon the fate of children in this poem, a relationship between these two events clearly exist on a thematic level.
Arthur is not necessarily acting monstrous here, but rather can be seen as acting like a good King. Arthur’s last order as commander-in-chief of the Britons will help to insure against further uprisings, which the following sections of the chronicles bear out. Therefore, Arthur is being the good king in his actions, and can die penitent. Whereas the giant killed children pitilessly, Arthur performs an act, albeit unseemly, to protect his people in virtually the same breath as he utters a prayer. But his action also reinforces the violent and persistent way that history moves, as a narrative punctuated by rise and fall. The giant, a destroyer of children, is displaced by Arthur, who then commits the same sin. It is as if Arthur begins the story as Jupiter, rising up against his child-eating father. But in the end he too becomes a figure of Saturn, conquered and cast aside.
Alongside the familiar rise and fall of conquerors here, however, is also a frustrated desire. Arthur's command to kill Mordred's children is not just a repetition of his predecessor, nor is it only an act to protect him and his people, but rather it is an attempt to arrest history's movement. To kill the next generation, as it were, is to stop the march of the translation of empire, and hold it in place. The messianic version of Arthur, where he will return to his people, seems to express a similar wish--to halt the ruinous movement of history.
The anxieties implicit in this episode becomes explicit in Arthur's dream of Fortune's wheel. The dream serves to foreshadow his death, providing a warning to Arthur that he should begin to prepare himself for the next life. It also introduces a note of futurity: his dream vision looks beyond his own imminent demise and pictures his successors climbing the Wheel. When Priamus declared Arthur heir to Alexander, he was marking a moment of historical transition, where he himself recedes into the past as Arthur takes his position at the top of the wheel. Here, however, Arthur relinquishes his spot, though not as willingly as Priamus, to the other two Christian Worthies. Alarmingly, perhaps for a medieval English audience, the two rising Worthies are luminaries of French history—Charlemagne and Godfrey. Some critics have argued that the poem and its portrait of Arthur may be a comment on Edward III and his continental campaigns. Whereas the historical meditations on Arthur, on his pastness and the imminent demise of his realm are benefited by temporal hindsight for a fourteenth or fifteenth century audience, this moment here opens up a different sense of futurity. The present of the reader is perhaps at stake. I am not suggesting that the poem serves as an alarmist warning to an English present. Rather, I suggest that this is a subtle reminder that the historical movement that sweeps away Arthur is always in motion. To celebrate Arthur, even in tragic form, is also to recognize that your historical moment will also be swept away.
The untimely encounters in the Alliterative Morte Arthure open a space to explore the discontinuities of British History. More specifically, it restores to the poem what the Gawain-poet would call the “blysse and blunder” of history, the ongoing movement of rise and fall that marks not only British and English history, but also universal history as imperium continues to migrate West, from Greece, to Rome, to medieval Europe. The romance episodes in the poem create a space where endings are considered uncomfortably alongside beginnings, stressing the shape of history as one of discontinuity.