Academic journal article Arthuriana

Medieval McGuffins: The Arthurian Model

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Medieval McGuffins: The Arthurian Model

Article excerpt

In our continuing efforts to comprehend and define medieval methods of literary composition, it is critical to use, or at least consider, all the approaches available to us.1 Those approaches obviously include everything we can learn from medieval manuals of rhetoric, from authors' own commentary, and other sources contemporaneous with the texts in question. However, in many instances a modern concept, even if drawn from a non-literary context, may offer a useful key to the function of earlier texts. This essay will examine the potential applicability of a cinematic phenomenon to a study of medieval narrative, and specifically to Arthurian romance. That phenomenon is the McGuffin.2

The concept of a McGuffin was fundamentally Alfred Hitchcock's, though it came to him as an anecdote recounted by a friend. As one version of the story has it,

Two men were traveling by train from London to Edinburgh. In the luggage rack overhead was a wrapped parcel.

'What have you there?' asked one of the men.

'Oh, that's a MacGuffin,' replied the other.

'What's a MacGuffin?'

'It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.'

'But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands.'

'Well, then, that's no MacGuffin.'3

This anecdote, however amusing, does little or nothing to clarify the term, but fortunately, Hitchcock and others were sometimes less enigmatic and more informative. Here, then, is a preliminary but standard definition for our purposes: a McGuffin is a plot element that exists to propel the story but that may have little or no intrinsic importance. 'For example, in Hitchcock's movie North by Northwest, thugs are on the look out for a character named George Kaplan. Roger Thornhill, an ad executive, gets mistaken for Kaplan and so he is chased instead. Meanwhile Thornhill himself tries to find Kaplan who doesn't even exist.'4 An even more revealing example, I believe, is from Hitchcock's Psycho. It is the robbery at the beginning. That event leads us to expect a chase and an attempt to recover the money, but of course that is not at all what the film is about. The robbery serves simply to introduce Janet Leigh into the motel and into the shower, thus plunging us into the middle of a situation that we could not have been led to expect.

Hitchcock's definitions and descriptions were inconsistent and sometimes even contradictory. However, in most instances his explanations do agree on the central point: a McGuffin is something-a person, an object, an event-the primary purpose of which is to motivate the characters and therefore the plot, whether or not that 'something' possesses any implicit significance. Hitchcock once remarked that in spy films the McGuffin is usually important or 'secret papers,' even though they are often important only because someone has stolen them or is trying to steal them, and the consequences of their loss might be dire. We may not even know the subject of these documents, and even if we did know, what is in them is no more important than anything else that mtghtbe in them. As long as the characters think something is important, and that 'something' propels the plot, we are dealing with a McGuffinization.

A review of a David Mamet film, Ronin, says much the same thing:

The 'McGuffin,' coined by Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device that drives the motivations of the characters. It is not important what the McGuffin is, or how it works-what is important is that the characters feel that it is important. In David Mamet's directorial debut 'The Spanish Prisoner,' the McGuffin is a mathematical model that would allow a company to profit from the stock market. In 'Ronin,' the McGuffin is the btiefcase-nobody knows what's inside, but they do know that it is important enough to kill for it.'

One additional example, this one drawn from the current television series 24. The recent two seasons have presented national crises related to terrorism-a nuclear bomb in one, a deadly virus in the other. …

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