Academic journal article Arthuriana

Ghostly Mothers and Fated Fathers: Gender and Genre in the Awntyrs off Arthure

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Ghostly Mothers and Fated Fathers: Gender and Genre in the Awntyrs off Arthure

Article excerpt

Personified as the ghost of Guenevere's dead mother, the past disrupts a present in the Awntyrs off Arthure to convey a warning about an ominous future to an unlikely subject: Guenevere herself. This interaction between mother and daughter functions as an important commentary on the inevitable limitations associated with any conception of history, temporal stability, or power. (LH)

From the very beginnings of its popularity as an identifiable genre or story type, accounts of Arthur's legendary reign have been haunted by audiences' knowledge of how the larger story concludes. Whether celebrated, scorned, or simply evoked, Britain's Arthurian past is precisely that, past, and, as a result, always already heading towards its own inevitable conclusion even if the particular narrative in question appears to end happily. Few texts confront the complex conceptions of history that emerge from medieval performances of an Arthurian past with the same vitality and directness as the Awntyrs off Arthure. Unlike most Arthurian narratives that focus on an individual knight and his adventures or, at least, a specific moment in the larger history of Arthur's reign, the Awntyrs combines two seemingly disparate happenings-a ghostly manifestation and a trial of arms over contested lands-in a manner that suggests a relationship between past, present, and future that not only broadens and ultimately complicates the message of the poem itself, but also problematizes our understanding of historical insight and its relationship to power. Personified as the ghost of Guenevere's dead mother, the past disrupts a seemingly peaceful present to convey a warning about an ominous future to an unlikely subject: the queen herself. Like the narrative in its entirety, however, the ghost's personal and personalized message also blends a variety of different generic conventions or modes of understanding, frequently making it difficult to ascertain in exactly what context her moral instruction is being offered.

As anyone who has waded, even briefly, into the existing scholarship on the Awntyrs can attest, critical opinions of the poem's literary value reflect this embedded hermeneutic confusion. It is has been described as romance, exemplum, memento mori, as an instance of the chronicle or epic tradition, a mirror for magistrates, a tragedy, a political commentary on the border politics of northern England, a theological exploration of baptism, and a deconstruction of chivalric ethos. Until relatively recently, however, these many intergeneric possibilities were seen as incompatible, their existence considered a sign of the narrative's many weaknesses instead of its potential import.1 Consequently, the most common assessment of the text is perhaps still best summed up as an unsatisfactory union between distinct and otherwise unrelated episodes. Indeed, as Krista Sue-Lo Twu has observed, when compared with the 'central strands of medieval Arthurian tradition' the Awntyrs was long considered 'decidedly peripheral...a late-comer which appears to be derivative in all the worst ways.'2 But as Norris Lacy's much quoted discussion of intertextuality in medieval literature in general and medieval Arthurian literature in particular reminds us, 'intertextual borrowing' is not necessarily a negative or non-artistic phenomenon. In fact, according to Lacy, such borrowing is the 'inevitable and positive consequence of an esthetic that defined literary values in terms of participation in a tradition' and is 'even more elaborate and pervasive' among Arthurian texts 'than in most other literary forms' so that it may 'reasonably be argued that Arthurian literature constitutes an enormous, overarching cycle, each part of which is intended to be read against a background of all others.'3 It is within this framework of intergeneric and intertextual allusions, I argue, that the thwarted feminine desire to effect change apparent within the poem's initial 'aunter,' the interaction between Guenevere and her ghostly mother, functions as an important commentary on the inevitable limitations associated with any conception of history, temporal stability, or power. …

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