The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess

The relationship between epic as a genre and ideologies of nationalism is not news; texts such as the Chanson de Roland, the Nibelungenlied and the Aeneid have all played, at various points in history, a significant role in the consolidation or reaffirmation of nations or empires.1 Literary epics constitute a kind of communal fantasy of paternal origins, a fantasy of which the erasure or abjection of the maternal or feminine origin is an essential component. In a sense, the national epic functions as an extended elegy, insofar as it constitutes itself negatively; "father Aeneas" can be established as the paternal progenitor of the Roman State only against the claims of Juno and the various other matres who continually threaten the patriarchal agenda.

This metaphysical tension between maternal (corporeal) and paternal (discursive) origins takes us back to originary and originating concerns of this book, back to the Book of Margery Kempe. Margery's efforts to establish a maternal metalanguage that might challenge the assumptions of the "ghostly fathers" and affirm the libidinal component of mystical jouissance can be seen as an inversion of the epic poet's anxieties about femininity and desire, anxieties that often seem to circulate around maternal figures.

In this final chapter, I would like to pursue the question of origins and difference a few steps further, in the context of a reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Sir Gawain echoes Chaucer Troilus in situating the epistemological problematic of textual origins within a dialogue between epic and romance, a dialogue predicated upon the male subjects mastery of a feminine Other. In Sir Gawain, however, this conversation is much more explicit; the filial relation between Aeneas and Arthur is the opening assertion in a text obsessed with the problematics of origins and endings. The issue of genre is also, it seems to me, crucial to an understanding of those previously intractable aspects of the poem: the poet's references to "Morgne the goddes," to Gawain "surfet," and his or her opening invocation of the concept of translatio studii et imperii can, I think, be

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The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Introduction: the Psychic Life of the Past 1
  • 1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing 15
  • 2. Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana 43
  • 3 - Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics 62
  • 4. Originary Fantasies and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess 82
  • 5. Historicity, Femininity, and Chaucer's Troilus 100
  • 6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess 129
  • Afterword: the Medieval Thing 153
  • Appendix 163
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 211
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