Genre as Context in the Alliterative Morte Arthure

Article excerpt

Genre remains an important context for teaching and understanding literature. The genre of the Alliterative Morte is epic-heroic. This genre is dominated by a focus on heroes and their concern with honor, glory and martial achievement. Such values and heroes have potentially tragic consequences, but such tragedy and the genre which surrounds it are celebrating, not condemning, Arthurian heroism and martial deeds. (KSW)

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All literary criticism is dependent upon contexts: that of the critic if nothing else, but also that of the original author and text. To take a notable example from Greek Drama, the comic poet Aristophanes probably would not have written so many plays devoted to pan-Hellenic peace had he not been writing during the destruction and divisiveness of the Peloponnesian War. Or, to take a medieval Arthurian example, the tragic emphases and simultaneously positive and negative portrayal of warfare in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur no doubt owe something to the turmoil of the equally divisive Hundred Years War and Wars of the Roses, against which bloody backdrops Malory assembled and created his Arthuriad.1 Likewise, suggests Mary Hamel, the Alliterative Morte Arthure owes its own tragic effect to the poet's response to Henry IV's usurpation of Richard II's throne.2 The socio-political contexts of the Morte Arthure are explored more fully throughout this special issue of Arthuriana, with Marco Nievergelt paying special attention to the Ricardian and late-medieval crusading contexts of the poem and Christine Chism situating the poem amidst the cultural, chivalric and courtly coalitions of the late fourteenth century.3 But equally important as a text's military or political contexts are its literary and generic contexts, for all literary criticism, if not all literary creation, is also dependent, consciously or not, on genre. Genre is in fact one of the key contexts for author, text, audience and scholar alike. Genre study has long been unfashionable: Croce famously denigrated it at the beginning of the twentieth century, and modern literary theory ignored it or further castigated it.4 Hence Fredric Jameson's comment of a generation ago still has validity today:

The reaction against genre theory in recent times is a strategic feature of what must be called the ideology of modernism. And it is certain that of all literary works, so-called modernistic ones are the least classifiable according to traditional 'kinds': witness the rise of a new and hybrid form in the novel, and in our own day, the emphasis on the incomparable uniqueness of the individual writer. 5

In part, this reaction against genre stems from the misguided belief that genre study and the classification of a text's genre restrict meaning and impose rigid closure or boundaries. In reality, genre is much more than a purely classificatory system: its classifications are useful and practical, not least for pedagogical reasons; but genre offers much more than this. As Northrop Frye and Alastair Fowler each observe in different but equally perspicacious ways, an understanding of genre enhances rather than obscures the reader's and critic's understanding of literature.6 And in part this increased literary elucidation occurs as a result of understanding the literary contexts of a particular kind or genre-both how the genre itself operates and what expectations it raises, as well as how and where it relates to other literary genres.7 Such contextualization reveals that most genres contain aspects of one or more other genres mixed in with the dominant kind, but that even granted the ubiquity of such generic mixture one kind generally dominates and stamps any individual text (or film or song, etc.). Where the generic mixture is too great to allow one genre to dominate the result is a generic hybrid, but even with mixture or hybridity an understanding of genre is still crucial for appreciation and interpretation. …

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