Arthurian Images and Iconography, or, how to mix post-modern theoretical papers with traditional close readings

Getting back on the recapping report – perhaps my favourite session at the IAS was a Monday session entitled Arthurian Images and Iconograpy: Theorizing Lost and Invented Geographies and Monuments in Arthurian Literature. It was an immensely popular session – people sitting on the floor again – and immensely fascinating for the number of different methodologies across the four papers, which the session participants managed to hold together more or less cohesively. My preference was, by far, for Michael Twomey’s close-reading, historically grounded approach, but all four papers were interesting and it was an excellent case study of how seemingly disparate approaches can hang well together and inform one another.

A view from Cadbury Hill

Not Actually Camelot - view from Cadbury Hill, facing away from Glastonbury. Taken on an IAS excursion.

Kathleen Coyne Kelly began with “The Eco-Tourist, The Heritage Industry, and Arthurian Legend”. She talked about our desire to seek out the past by actually going there, and noted that what we seek is ‘historical fantasy’, not either the present or past reality of the site.1 She called it ‘a kind of nostalgic eco-pornography’. Her theoretical grounding was in current work on nostalgia; she talked about sites associated with modern authors as well as a series of places associated with Arthurian legend (a particularly good combination of the two is Merlin’s Cave, a backformation from Tennyson into the Cornish landscape). She discussed current debates about ‘heritage’ tourism – commericalised bogus history?; she noted that often association with a mythical or historical figure results in revitalisation rather than preservation; and that such desire for the past is often linked with a desire to connect with the natural world (but that these ‘natural’ experiences are equally artificial).

This paper raised a whole bunch of interesting ideas for me, but as you can probably tell, I connected better with the concrete parts – the examples of places; the discussion of current debates on heritage management – than the theorising. Also apparently we’re now all post-tourists? I had barely begun to be a tourist!

Next up, Michael Twomey gave a paper entitled “Sir Gawain and the Green World”. You’d think that everything there is to be said about the forest in SGGK has been said, and said, and said again, but in this case, Twomey was arguing that Bertilak’s castle is not an uncivilised outpost in an isolated wilderness. Rather, he argued, the environment is heavily managed – the hunting scenes, in particular, tell us of a local lord who is engaged with and carefully manages the forest parts of his domain. The poem, according to Twomey, is ‘ultimately anthropocentric’ – and Gawain is no more in the wilderness at Hautdesert than is a modern tourist at a heritage-managed site.

Twomey talked in great detail about forest law, which mediated conflict between the king and the nobility over rights to the forest and its produce, particularly game, but also timber and other products. Now, I have apparently taken down a bunch of technical information, like a glossary of terms for forest management, but not the key points of the argument. However, I have a note here saying that the Wirral had been disaforested at the time of the poem’s composition (i.e., it was no longer legally a forest, and thus not subject to forest law). I think Twomey may have argued that Gawain’s passing out of the Wirral and into Bertelak’s domain is passing out of the wilderness and into human domain. He also noted that, if Bertelak holds the land from Morgan le Fay, then either it is her royal forest, or she and Bertelak both are squatting on Arthur’s territory: this ambiguity is never cleared up in the text.

I liked this paper, with its pleasing mix of historicised landscape study (landscapes seem to be the It Thing right now! What gives?) and close-reading. I could see connections to the previous paper, and the overall theme of tourism, but I think to really draw them out you’d need to work with both studies of managed and unmanaged landscapes in ME romance, and something historiographical. If Gawain isn’t in the wilderness after all, why do we all want to think he is? You could tie that back to nostalgia very easily, I think, but Twomey didn’t go far down that road.

On the other hand, he has himself been an SGGK tourist.

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

View from Caldy Hill to Wales over the River Dee

Third up was Gillian Rudd, with a paper entitled ‘The Wilderness of Wirral in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’. Much has been said about the Wirral and will be said many times over yet, I’m sure: but Gillian herself is a resident of the Wirral! She began with a description from

Wirral Peninsula is placed between the River Dee and the River Mersey, overlooking both the Welsh Hills and the spectacular Liverpool skyline. Well connected to the rest of the country, Wirral is the ideal location for those wanting to get away from it all.

And then – after some commentary on nostalgia on which I haven’t got coherent notes – we set off to ‘get away from it all’ with Gawain – into the Wilderness of Wirral. Rudd filled us in on some information which I gather originally came from J.A. Burrow – the Wirral was a well-known refuge for ‘malefactors’. However, its disaforestation in 1376 removed the legal protection for outlaws. Does Gawain know this? Which of those two facts does he know?2 Are we, the audience, in Gawain’s mind, or someone else’s? “What is the space,” Rudd asks, “and how can you act in it?”

At this point my notes become a bit incoherent and focus on facts that seemed fun to me: Gillian Rudd thinks that the word “freke” at this point in Middle English is starting to pick up the connotations of “freak” – I’d really love to see that explored further!; she talked about shifting boundaries between the real/unreal, and the possibility that Gawain might be fighting off the terrors of the Wirral in his head rather than reality; she posited that the ‘twist’ is that you think you’re in another world but you’re not.3 The question of why Gawain sees no animals in the forest came up: clearly they live there, but he doesn’t see any. Does he want to believe he’s in an untouched landscape?

Finally, or at least, last among the things I wrote down, Rudd asked us if Gawain could be recast. Is he the hero going into the Otherworld, or the Other entering Bertelak’s court?

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

Arthur Uther Pendragon celebrating solstice at Stonehenge

The final paper – and by far the most amusing – was Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Schichman, with Arthur Pendragon, Eco-Warrior. There is absolutely no way I could reproduce this paper: so much of it relied on the fabulous photographs, on powerpoint, of Arthur Uther Pendragon, a gentlemen much concerned with ecogological preservation (because the king and the land are one), and strongly opposed to English Heritage, who restrict and market access to sites of national importance, such as Stonehenge. Finke and Shichtman talked about the heritage industry’s dependance on the idea that the past is done and should be preserved, as opposed to Arthur Uther Pendragon’s desire to live the past, and in fact his claim to be the past, living. ‘In Arthur’s view, past and present are mutually constitutive’, I have in my notes.

This paper was well constructed: Shichtman discussed Arthur Pendragon’s life and career, and Finke provided commentary and theory-informed insights. I found it far better than the first paper, in terms of the tight relationship between facts and theory: I felt that here, it wasn’t just that links were being made between fact and theory, but that each illuminated the other indispensably. Of course, by the time we got to this paper I had the benefit of all three previous papers’ touching on the same theoretical concepts, so that helped. Regardless, it was a presentation which sparkled with humour and oddity, but also genuine engagement with Pendragon and his goals, as well as broader social issues.


1. Mea Culpa. Interestingly, when in New Zealand I zealously avoided LOTR-related sites, preferring to keep Middle Earth in my head; but evidently I am not content to keep the past in the past!
2. Another question worth asking, which neither Rudd nor Twomey did, is: does the forestation, or disaforestation, of the Wirral even -apply- in Gawain’s ‘verse? I am all down with Arthurian legend being used to work out real social concerns of the contemporary audience, but my gut instinct is that one of the features of the fantasy-past is that resemblances to the present are serve one of two purposes: because you need the similarities there in order to work out whatever it is your anxiety is; or because the -absence- of that feature would force you/ your audience too far out of their comfort zone. I’m not sure that particular legal status of the Wirral at the time of writing fits into either category (although the legal connotations of ‘forest’ certainly could fit one or the other).
3. This point intrigued me, since it’s the polar opposite of my friend and colleague Kylee Nicholls’ argument, which she trotted out in a paper at ANZAMEMS, that Gawain’s problem is that he walks out of the “real” world and into the world you find in romances -about- Gawain, and cannot figure out what on earth he’s supposed to do or be. I lean toward Kylee’s theory, but I’d like to see more of Gillian Rudd’s logic: I expect that the two arguments have much in common in the building-blocks.


4 Responses to “Arthurian Images and Iconography, or, how to mix post-modern theoretical papers with traditional close readings”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Rudd filled us in on some information which I gather originally came from J.A. Burrow – the Wirral was a well-known refuge for ‘malefactors’.

    That’s quite interesting just because the only thing I know about the medieval Wirral is that it’s one place where DNA work has arguably proven a substantial Viking settlement. I doubt `Gawain’ knows that; but I wonder whether the language might still have been a bit different from the surrounding areas by then?

    the possibility that Gawain might be fighting off the terrors of the Wirral in his head rather than reality

    Argh, Gawain-Guthlac crossover! Surely Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s made this link already… But I have to do it again just because barbarous language again you see.

    Drive-by feedback complete! <screech of wheels fading into distance>

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I’m not actually sure, from my notes, -why- Gillian Rudd thought the terrors of the Wirral might be in his head. *frownyface*

      That point about the viking settlement is interesting, though, because usually the thing about the Wirral people (including Rudd) refer to is its Welshness, or semi-Welshness or not-really Englishness. Hmm. I wonder what one could do to investigate the dialect of the area? Someone must have done that, surely.

  2. Lawrence Says:

    Interesting–just today I spent a few hours writing my argument that Twomey is wrong wrong wrong that Bertilak holds the forest or the castle from Morgan le Fay. And here it is again! Well he’s not alone in asserting that. In fact he wrote a very interesting paper arguing the case in the collection in memory of Maureen Fries (which I have checked out of the library–can return if you’d like to take a look).

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Yes, I’ve seen that argument before, I think, and I’m not convinced of it either. It feels like something that people expect of Morgan, rather than something actually present in the text.

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