Fun with Middle English!

This semester, at the recommendation of one of my former students, Middle English Reading Group have been working our way through the middle section of the Prose Merlin. We started off with ‘Merlin and Nimiane’, the section recommended to me by my student C., who is secretly very sappy; and we’re finishing up with ‘The Banishment of Bertelak; and King Arthur and King Lot’.

The Prose Merlin, folks! It has everything you need!

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracing– Romance! C. is right: Merlin and Nimiane are adorable, and come with the twisted angst of the fact that not only do *you* know she’s going to destroy him, so does he. Guinevere and Arthur are pretty cute, too: after their betrothal she helps arm him for his departure, and he arms her with a kiss. D’AWWW.
– Gawain! Lots of Gawain! Gawain is the leader of the children (by which, apparently, we mean young men, which is a pity, I was enjoying the vision of Gawain toddling around at the head of a pack of boys); he’s the bestest fighter ever; he’s all the allegorical symbols; he nearly kills his own father; he’s the flower of all chivalry… and so on and so forth. This author is happy to feed my Gawain obsession.

– Crossdressing FOR ALL! We had two weeks of great fun with Merlin and Grisandolus, which seems to be a variant on the story found in the Anglo-Norman poem Silence: a daughter, an only child, is raised as a son and goes to court as a knight; eventually she is sent to hunt for Merlin, and he reveals her secret. Meanwhile, the queen is committing adultery – in this case, she has twelve young boys shaven and dressed as girls, to be her personal entertainment – and Merlin reveals that, too. It’s very exciting.

Monty Python's King Arthur, shouting– Slapstick! In the battle between King Arthur and King Lot there’s a fabulous scene where King Arthur is stuck under his own horse, and King Lot is trying to pull Arthur’s helmet off so he can decapitate him, but the helmet won’t go, and he’s stuck there pulling and pushing and trying to get this helmet off, until someone comes to rescue Arthur.

– Kidnaps, escapes, hijinks, and Guinevere being awesome – there’s a pretty spiffy kidnap story involving Guinevere on her wedding night, and her suspiciously similarly-named half-sister Guinevere. Our Guinevere puts up a spirited fight, is aided by plucky and fortuitously placed good guys, and ends up saving herself by clinging to a tree (her assailants, pull as they might, cannot dislodge her). It’s fun, funny, and there’s a rather sweet scene of her father comforting her afterwards.

MERG have been having great fun with this text – we had a few newbies but by this stage in semester everyone seems to be following easily. Last week there were plenty of “oohs” and “ahs” and laughter in all the right places. I don’t suppose the author of the Prose Merlin expected that the text would still be good performative reading in half a millenium’s time, but I don’t think it’s lost much for the passage of time.


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