Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain

Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain

Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain

Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain

Synopsis

During and after the Hundred Years War, English rulers struggled with a host of dynastic difficulties, including problems of royal succession, volatile relations with their French cousins, and the consolidation of their colonial ambitions toward the areas of Wales and Scotland. Patricia Ingham brings these precarious historical positions to bear on readings of Arthurian literature in Sovereign Fantasies, a provocative work deeply engaged with postcolonial and gender theory. Ingham argues that late medieval English Arthurian romance has broad cultural ambitions, offering a fantasy of insular union as an "imagined community" of British sovereignty. The Arthurian legends offer a means to explore England's historical indebtedness to and intimacies with Celtic culture, allowing nobles to repudiate their dynastic ties to France and claim themselves heirs to an insular heritage. Yet these traditions also provided a means to critique English conquest, elaborating the problems of centralized sovereignty and the suffering produced by chivalric culture. Texts such as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," the "Alliterative Morte Arthure," and Caxton's edition of Malory's "Morte Darthur" provide what she terms a "sovereign fantasy" for Britain. That is, Arthurian romance offers a cultural means to explore broad political contestations over British identity and heritage while also detailing the poignant complications and losses that belonging to such a community poses to particular regions and subjects. These contestations and complications emerge in exactly those aspects of the tales usually read as fantasy-for example, in the narratives of Arthur's losses, in the prophecies of his return, and in tales that dwell on death, exotic strangeness, uncanny magic, gender, and sexuality. Ingham's study suggests the nuances of the insular identity that is emphasized in this body of literature. Sovereign Fantasies shows the significance, rather than the irrelevance, of medieval dynastic motifs to projects of national unification, arguing that medieval studies can contribute to our understanding of national formations in part by marking the losses produced by union.

Excerpt

A history without the imagination,” wrote Jacques Le Goff, “is a mutilated, disembodied history” (5). magination, Le Goff implies, has the power to repair historical fragments, turning mutilated details into a coherent whole. Le Goff’s striking image of a “disembodied” history without imagination links materiality with the imaginative faculty. History’s special claim to the material and embodied comes not merely from facts about the past, but from what an imagination does with those facts. Le Goff thus rearranges what has been until recently the standard opposition between history (the Real, the material, and the embodied) and fiction (the imagined, the literary, and the textual). Our histories need imagination, Le Goff and many medievalists since insist, at least in part because, as Gabrielle Spiegel has suggested, “imaginary dreams” have the power to “motivate human behavior” (86). Such work has helped us see that fantasy and history have had a long acquaintance, and not simply because medieval writers about the past cared less for verisimilitude than did their modern or early modern counterparts. Indeed, as the 1839 text of the Middle English version of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville suggests, the imaginative faculty can assist in the very real pro cess of creating empires. Imperial governments use, as that text puts it, “[a]lle here lust and alle here Ymaginacioun…for to putten alle Londes undre hire subjeccioun” [all their desire and all their imagination so as to put all lands under their control] (25I).

Le Goff emphasizes the unifying and synthetic power of the imagination; imagination, in this view, repairs mutilation, places pieces together, crafts wholeness out of parts. The remarks attributed to “Mandeville,” in contrast, emphasize the role of the imagination in processes of conquest, annexation, and subjugation, thus hinting at the sinister side of imaginary unifications. Unity is an imaginary quality valuable to imperial governments and to processes of colonization. And yet processes of conquest, annexation, and subjugation can be said to unify only if we take a con-

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