Translating Middle English

So I’ve been doing something new and unusual lately – translating Middle English. For no good reason, really. Middle English Reading Group, who put up with my whims in text selection, normally read without preparation and without translation. However, a few weeks ao Sir Tristrem proved too much for about half the group members. ‘Too much’ is a funny thing – with a few notable exceptions, most MERG members over the years have developed a facility for grabbing the ‘gist’ and rolling with it, but this year we have a handful of members who prefer to prepare in advance of reading, and want to understand every line.

Now Sir Tristrem is an odd text – it screams NORTHERN NORTHERN NORTHERN as you read it, but the intro tells me there are unique southern word forms scattered throughout. I happen to like northern dialects, so I’ve fallen into the habit of paraphrasing action or description after it’s been read, and translating dialogue. It’s counter-intuitive for me: I don’t normally translate Middle English, and I try to get a feel for the language rather than ever having learned it.

However, it’s kind of satisfying to translate on the fly (whereas anything more than glossing on paper would feel redundant).  And I don’t know about the others (who are reading the text aloud, to be followed by my translation/paraphrase), but it’s absolutely accelerated the speed at which I pick up a facility for this particular author’s dialect and word use. Nifty! I may have to do this again…

Sir Tristrem isn’t, I find, a particularly elegant text (iambic quadrameter? Who does that? Blech). But every so often the poet has a way with words. I present to you the first meeting of Tristrem and Morgan, who killed his father:

Tristrem speke bigan:

“Sirking, God loke the

As Ythe love and an

And thou hast served to me.”

The douke answerd than,

“Y pray, mi lord so fre,

Whether thou blis or ban,

Thine owhen mot it be,

Thou bold.

Thi nedes tel thou me,

Thine erand, what thou wold.

(ll. 837-47, ed Lupack – Tristan began to speak: “Sir king, may god look upon you as I love and cherish you and you have served me.” The duke then answered, “I pray, my lord so noble, whether you bless or curse, may it be your own [fate], you bold man. You must tell me your errand, what you would [do/have].”)

I like that. It’s a deft instance of that truth-and-lies doublespeak which Beroul’s Iseut is particularly good at – here, manipulation with words is shown as Tristan’s skill long before we meet Iseut, and as a part of the masculine world of politics and combat, too. Interesting!


The appeal of Arthuriana, or, ‘why would you want to read the same story over and over again’

This is not a story about what makes an ‘enduring legend’.* It’s about a student question which threw me for a loop the other day. I can talk about how Arthurian literature is full of exciting adventures, Important Themes, attractive people, etc, but I had never expected to need an answer to the question

But why would you want to read the same story over and over again?

Granted, our students are being treated to a fast gallop through selections of Arthuriana, Geoffrey of Monmouth through to Monty Python; it’s a rare medieval audience-member who would have had access to more than a handful of different Arthurian texts. But surely that only makes it more likely that they would read (or hear) theexact same story over and over again?

I can only assume that Student hasn’t a fannish bone in zir body. How else do franchises like Dr Who, Star Trek, or, for that matter, CSI survive, if not by people enjoying watching the same people or kinds of people do more or less the same thing, in the same sorts of places, at the same time every week? Assuming you liked the story in the first place, I’m a little bemused by the notion that you might not want to read it again, or read the further adventures of,  or, or or…

But then, you’re talking to someone who read the entire Anne of Green Gables series on loop for most of her childhood, and then, having been coaxed into reading something else – just once! – proceeded to read Alanna: the First Adventure eleven times back-to-back until she figured out how to get her hands on the sequel.

Needless to say, somewhere in my teens I got my hands on an Arthurian novel, and now here I am, driving Middle English Reading group mad by making them read assorted Middle English romances which are, I am informed, inferior to the work of the great Middle English poets.

I repeat: why wouldn’t you want to read about the same characters over and over again?


* Although tomorrow I have to give a lecture which covers why Tristan and Iseult are just such a legend. Ho hum.

Wolfram von Eschenbach: Nice Guy (TM)

If anyone now speaks better of women, then truly I have no objection. I would be glad to hear their joy bruited wide. There is only one to whom I am unwilling to offer my loyal servitude. My anger is always new against her, ever since I detected her in deviance.

I am Wolfram von Eschenbach and I know a little of singing, and I am a pair of tongs holding m anger against one woman in particular: she has inflicted such wrong upon me that I have no choice but to hate her. That is why I bear the brunt of other women’s enmity. Alas, why do they act in this way!

Although their enmity grieves me, it stems from their womanliness, after all, because I have spoken out of turn and done myself wrong – the chances are it will never happen again! Yet they should not be overhasty in storming my bastion – they will find valorous battle. I have not forgotten how to be a good judge of their bearing and their ways. If chastity keeps company with a woman, I will be her reputations’ champion. Her sorrow grieves me from the heart.

He’s a nice guy, really! Except for that one time, but it was totally justified!

… is it wrong of me that this is my favourite bit of Parzival?

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.

IAS update #2 – Gawain and Guinevere, my two favourite Arthurian peeps

[Note: both these papers, and my recaps of them, deal with encroachment on personal and physical autonomy; the second in particular covered some distressing gendered violence in the narrative structure.]

The first paper I went to at Bristol was on what might just qualify as my favourite subject – the objectification (or, in this case, commodification) of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Warning against the wyles of women – David Sweeten

This paper moved very fast, especially in the middle, so I missed chunks of it, but I really look forward to reading a hard-copy version at some point

David began with this quote:

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingFor were I worth al the wone of wymmen alyue,
And al þe wele of þe worlde were in my honde,
And I schulde chepen and chose to cheue me a lorde

Þer schulde no freke upon folde bifore yow be chosen.

[ll. 1269-71,75; Tolkien & Gordon 2nd ed. (ed. by Norman Davies); my quotation, not David Sweeten’s.]

Gawain, or Gawain-as-husband, is something which can be purchased with appropriate wealth. David went on to argue that Gawain’s honour is also a commodity to be bargained for: he read the bedroom scenes not as Lady B’s attempt to sleep with Gawain (or purchase sex from him), but an endeavour to get him to accept the girdle. She takes her time setting up the appropriate stakes: first offering a too-high price (sexual favours for his honour) in order to make the lower price, the girdle, more acceptable. The values of the items in question – Gawain’s honour, and the girdle, seem slippery: Lady B. can reduce Gawain’s standing by questioning his identity; and her revelation of the properties of the girdle forces him to re-value the item within the context of the exchange.

As well as this reading, which was fun in its own right, David offered some historical context. He argued that the poem is both rooted in its NW Midlands homeland, and closely tied to London politics of the day. SGGK’s anxiety about women’s commodification of male honour he linked to contemporary anxiety about the position of influence held by Alice Perrers, mistress of Edward III. The nobility of the NW Midlands relied heavily on direct royal patronage: Alice’s strong influence over Edward threatened that relationship.

I really liked this paper. But then, I really like most things which have to do with someone bossing poor Gawain about.*

Next up, I missed the first five minutes or so (but enjoyed the rest of)….

The Queen was in her Parlour: Guinevere and Space – Kristina Hildebrand

This paper was in a session (“Women in Arthurian Literature”), which, perhaps due to its snazzy content and perhaps due to its respected moderator, Bonnie Wheeler, was so jam-packed that people (myself and David Sweeten included) were sprawled on the floor around the edges of the room.

Kristina argued that Guinevere marks out and defines royal space; her presence identifies civilisation in the text. This power is not to be confused with political clout, but it seems to be impossible to rule England without her.

Gwen, with crown

Guinevere is a stable figure at the centre of the court (for the most part), when compared to, say Iseult, who comes and goes from her husband’s court. She has a defined space, her personal chamber: Kristina talked about the stress in the social fabric of Malory’s Arthurian world caused by differing values placed on the queen’s space. To Arthur, he alone should have access to it; Gawain argues that because the queen has a public function as rewarder of knights, her chamber is a public space.

With this framework set up, Kristina talked about Guinevere in Meleagaunt’s castle: her space grows smaller and smaller; she attempts to defend a single room, and in the end she cannot even maintain control over her bed. This is a pretty distressing situation by any measure, but the framework Kristina set up around it, in which Guinevere’s space is not just about her person but her identity as queen, the whole process sent chills up my spine. Not-good chills, except insofar as I admire the careful authorial choices necessary to produce such effects.

Guinevere, then, is under constant threat: she is most safe inside Arthur’s court, but never entirely so. Kristina drew in Igraine, here, who was not safe even within her husband’s court; and then she asked if the convent to which Guinvere retires is a safe personal space at last? There, she has authority, and ought to be able to prevent male encroachments on her territory. However, Lancelot ignores her command and tries to see her. Kristina noted that Guinevere is saved, in the end – by death. Only God can protect her; and even then, only terminally.

I liked this paper! It was Relevant To My Interests, even if it was about Malory. Totally worth scrunching up on the floor for.


* I feel I ought to specify, since apparently many people assume otherwise, that I do not personally wish to shag Gawain! Boss him about, sure. My feeling on Gawain is that he should be my big brother, and his life would be much better if he had me to tell him how to run it.** And many other people’s lives would be improved because I would be bossing Gawain about, and not them. What, you mean you don’t all have fictional characters you want to adopt? *sidles off*

** I have a feeling the Maiden With Small Sleeves shares my feelings on Gawain, too.

To help remember all your kings, I’ve come up with this song…

Another instalment in the annals of funny things I promised to show Jon:

All due thanks to my housemate K, who must have a good reason for watching this over and over again.

Also, unrelated: at the IAS I was given a copy of this book. Acroyd’s ‘The Death of King Arthur’, a modernisation and slimming down of Malory. It’s readable, and, well, I would’ve liked it a lot at fifteen, but these  days, if I must read Malory I have the Oxford World’s Classics translation and I ought to read the original. This one strikes me as good for non-specialists and especially teenagers, but my Dad’s already got a translation and no one in my family has suitably-inclined teenagers.

If anyone in England would like this book, for themselves or teenagers (even pre-teens, if they have high reading levels) they know, lemme know. It’d save me carting it back to Australia, after all.

Another note – to whomever it was who entered this post in the Down Under Feminists Carnival, ta muchly. Sorry I didn’t say anything about it before – I was in transit when the carnival went up. 🙂

Sady Doyle sums up “Mists of Avalon”

Morgana says "Oh, PLEASE"

The book says that the problem with Christianity is that it won’t tolerate other religions. It implies, however, that the problem with Christianity is that it’s a stupid jerk religion for assholes. The ladies in Avalon get psychic powers and meaningful jobs and top-notch liberal arts educations, whereas we manage to make it about three whole chapters into the book before a Christian dude beats his wife and things get all “be silent, you accursed scold” this and “have you put some spell upon my manhood, you accursed bitch” that and “you see what comes of your willfulness, my lady” the other. To argue that the book ultimately teaches religious tolerance is like arguing that old movie serials ultimately taught the importance of cooperation between virtuous maidens and dudes with capes and handlebar moustaches who enjoyed tying maidens to train tracks. Of course, medieval Christianity was deeply misogynist and intolerant, and so was medieval Britain. The crucial addition is a magic island full of twentieth-century Women’s Studies majors who can tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong and allow readers to feel superior in between the many sex scenes. 

YES THIS. This sums up all many of my problems with Mists, in a humourous yet eloquent fashion. Ten points to Sady Doyle. (Link goes to an article entitled ‘The Fantasy of Girl World: Lady Nerds and Utopias, which does have one major flaw, and that is the assumption that all spec-fic is escapist nerd wish-fulfilment. Which, er, leaves me wondering what to do with The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Gwen and Morgana, looking right at youThe thing is, I loved Mists as a teenager! LOVED IT! For some reason I never really questioned the “pagans good / Christians evil” logic of Mists (and much other historical-fantasy lit). Despite being a very devout little Christian, it wasn’t until my last year of high school that it crossed my mind that there was anything odd about this paradigm at all. Mind you, nor did I question the weird mythologies surrounding “Celtic” Christianity in some religious circles (whack some knotwork on it! Mention St Bridit! Lo and behold you’re cool and feminist now!), so I think we can just call all this critical-thinking-fail on my part.

Then I went to university! And learned the error of my ways. The Celts are not magical, my friends. Also, not all Christians are evil. And being a Celt does not exempt you from the putative evils of Christianity and/or the patriarchy.

Other fun things about my experience with Mists as a teenager:

Arthur and Lancelot, laughing and toasting one another-I was really, um, surprised by the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot scene. And I thought it was really cool and edgy and boundary-crossing and a fascinating concept, this idea that each of them was really as much into the other as they were into the woman they supposedly wanted! And yet for some reason it took me until last year to read Between Men. This was clearly an opportunity lost.

-I got really annoyed with her handling of Guinevere! And everyone’s else’s (that I could get hold of; so, Malory and onwards). She’s always such a wet blanket!* And I was really peeved that MZB, who spent so much time and effort rehabilitating Morgan, basically wrote off Guinevere and used her as a cipher for Teh Evils of Teh Patriarchy.

Gwen, with crown

So I set out to fix this! I was going to write an Arthurian novella about Guinevere, and she was not going to be a wet blanket! This turned out to be way too hard to do when I had little to no access to medieval sources and was getting tangled on the idea that there was a “real” Arthurian legend. So I gave up and wrote terrible teenage poetry instead.

And now I am at university, and I am trying to wrangle a chapter into shape, and it is about how Guinevere is actually more interesting than Arthur. In short, the main thing that’s changed since I was sixteen is that I now hate Mists much more than I did before.**


*Another reason to love the BBC’s Merlin. Gwen is not a damp rag!

** Also, my poetry is worse now than when I was sixteen. Disappointing.