Academic journal article Arthuriana

Reading the Diptych: The Awntyrs off Arthure, Medium, and Memory

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Reading the Diptych: The Awntyrs off Arthure, Medium, and Memory

Article excerpt

In Secular Scripture, Northrop Frye underscores the central role of memory in romance. He claims that all romances follow a two-part movement: a descent, which can be described as loss of memory or 'amnesia,' followed by an ascent, which he describes as the remembering of what was forgotten.1 Though Frye's theory is not concerned with medieval romance, his emphasis on memory is useful for a reading of The Awntyrs offArthure. The Awntyrs is a bipartite poem of two linked narratives, and so it is tempting to place the two narratives in a two-part scheme such as Frye's. To do so, however, the order would need to be reversed: the Awntyrs is not an account of forgettingthen- remembering, but of remembering-then-forgetting. More accurately, the poem recounts a story of incomplete memory followed by incomplete amnesia. Placing the poem in the context of psychological theories of reading and drawing on psychoanalytical notions of the uncanny and cryptonymy, this essay argues that the Awntyrs resists the cognitive processes involved in reading narrative. Through a spectral encounter that is forgotten yet remembered, the poem haunts its audience and casts a critical shadow over the Arthurian court.

Criticism of the Awntyrs is divided over the question of unity. Most critics agree that the poem is made up of two episodes (ll. 1-338 and 339-702) with a brief conclusion (ll. 703-15).2 The question is whether the episodes are joined in an aesthetic whole. Or, to put it another way, is the poem two stories or one? Is it about 'Awntyrs' plural, as the title would suggest, or 'a(u)nter' singular, as the poet claims (ll. 1, 715)? The older critical tradition believes the Awntyrs to be aesthetically flawed because it does not meet the New Critical requirement of unity. The editor of the standard edition of the poem, Ralph Hanna III, has trouble seeing the two episodes as part of the same work. It is difficult, he says, 'to believe that any compiler devoted to the joining of two discrete poems would bungle his task so badly as to leave undone what he sought to perform.'3 Hanna's response to this dilemma is to revive Hermann Lübke's hypothesis that the two episodes are actually two separate works written by different authors.4 More recently, accusations of disunity have been revived by J.O. Fichte, who writes that there is a 'contradictory effect achieved by the juxtaposition of the two opposed concepts of Arthur as exemplum mali and exemplum boni.'5 These concepts, he says, are 'radically different' and are good reason to see the two episodes as written by different authors.6

On the other side of the critical fence are defenders of the poem's unity. By far the strongest defender is A.C. Spearing.7 Spearing substitutes the terms 'coherence' or 'connectedness' for 'unity,' thus moving away from the language of New Criticism.8 Then he proposes that the two episodes of the Awntyrs function as a diptych. Like the medieval art form in which two pictures are placed side by side, the Awntyrs creates meaning by bringing together two different episodes: 'when the two are put together they generate a meaning and an emotion far greater than either possesses separately...Sparks leap across the gap between the two parts, and the onlooker's mind is set alight by them.'9 While Spearing is comfortable admitting that the poem is-like a diptych-discontinuous,10 he distinguishes this discontinuity from issues of coherence or connectedness. His aim is to portray the poem as an 'exact symmetry' which is 'strongly cohesive.'11

Both sides of the debate have strengths and weaknesses. The accusations of disunity sometimes impose modern expectations onto a medieval text, and questions of unity are often confused with questions of authorship. But the fact that the Awntyrs seems disunified to so many readers should probably not be ignored in a reading of the poem. On the other hand, the overemphasis on unity can lead critics to downplay less coherent parts of the text. …

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