Academic journal article Arthuriana

Border States: Parody, Sovereignty, and Hybrid Identity in the Carl of Carlisle

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Border States: Parody, Sovereignty, and Hybrid Identity in the Carl of Carlisle

Article excerpt

The Carl of Carlisle presents complex problems of identity and sovereignty embedded in its parodic form. The romance can be seen as a border text and as such it explores hybrid national, social, and literary forms. (SP)

A commonplace of the standard critical narrative about The Carl of Carlisle is that it has received little scholarly attention, but it has been receiving a steady stream of little attention for the more than fifty years since the publication of Auvo Kurvinen's parallel edition. Certainly it does not attract the same level of research and critical energy as its analogue Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.1 Recently, however, more scholars and readers are looking to The Carl of Carlisle as part of the Northern Gawain Group, a late medieval Arthurian collection of texts with recognized affinities, including such works as The Wedding of Gawain and Dame Ragnell, The Turk and Gawain, and The Awntrs of Arthur. This popular tradition is roughly concurrent with Malory's more courtly translations (mid- to late-1400s). The division between 'popular' and 'courtly' romance is less bright than these oppositional terms suggest, as there are few romances that strictly fit the required criteria for either category. These apparently hybrid romances are predominantly Northern and Midlands, and 'the locality in which the action takes place is almost invariably the area around Carlisle and the Inglewood forest, with which [Gawain] seems to have been traditionally associated.'2 The Carl of Carlisle fits this description in its setting, its themes, and narrative elements. It is in many ways an exemplary popular romance, but still challenges many longstanding assumptions about romances and their intended audiences.

The Carl of Carlisle is that rare text with exemplars in more than one version across centuries: one a tail rhyme romance (designated as A), the other an early modern ballad (designated B).3 The A text is found in MS Brogynton II (formerly Porkington 10) ff. 12-26 and is commonly dated to circa 1400. The B text is found in the Percy Folio MS (BM Addit. 27 879). The B text was first published by Frederic Madden in his collection Sir Gawayne (1839).4 The date for the B text is usually given as ca. 1650 according to linguistic evidence. The story changes little, showing a remarkable continuity across more than 200 years.5 T. Brandsen remarked in 1997 that the B version is 'little more than a fragment' while the A version is 'an integrated whole.'6 The B text, it must be noted, is considerably more than a fragment, although both texts are held to be defective derivatives of a common exemplar.

Carl's A and B versions deserve a complete comparative thematic, historical and literary study that is beyond the scope of this article, but I do wish to suggest that both texts offer evidence of the preoccupation of their common source: regional, linguistic, and social borderlands. As described by Michelle Warren, 'border writing' is vital to Arthurian mythologies to the extent Arthurian literature explores and reifies the 'paradoxes that inhere in limits and boundaries' while examining competing claims over 'space, ethnicity, [and] language.'7 Following Warren's criteria, Carl is a border text that both comes from and explores the ambiguity of boundaries: political, geographic, class, and literary. I see this interest in liminality and border states throughout both versions of The Carl of Carlisle, and this preoccupation is exposed in its primary theme of courtesy and sovereignty. Who controls the border regions between recognized (if emergent) national entities and identities? Who should be in charge when a perceived social inequality exists between two actors, but the interaction takes place in the realm controlled by the supposed inferior? As we read Arthurian romance, we note their competing ideological and generic claims, and their occasionally conflicted senses of audience expectation and reception. The Carl of Carlisle tests the limits of audience expectation through comic juxtaposition of conventionally opposed identities of class, birth, and gender, and in doing so investigates the liminal spaces between conventions of Arthurian romance. …

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