Ruthmarie H. Mitsch

title.none: Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance

identifier.other: baj9928.9501.002 95.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruthmarie H. Mitsch, The Ohio State University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Saunders, Corinne J. The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1993. xiii + 235 pages.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.01.02

Saunders, Corinne J. The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1993. xiii + 235 pages.

Reviewed by:

Ruthmarie H. Mitsch
The Ohio State University

While "courtly" literature calls to mind life at the court, the forest is an archetypal landscape in romance literature. The adventure that validates the knight at court is situated outside the court, and most often in a forest setting emphasizing the unknown and unrefined. The prominence accorded the forest in major European romances of the Middle Ages is also found in many smaller, less-studied works. Thus, Corinne J. Saunders' project of examining the development of this single motif and its revelation of the human psyche in romance literature becomes a broad chronological survey of medieval European literature. It is a walk through the "forest of symbols."

The book, based upon the author's thesis, comprises eight chapters, augmented by an introduction, epilogue, and bibliography. Chapter One, "The Origins of the Romance Forest," is a clearly written general background chapter, necessary since many (if not most) of Saunders' readers, students of literature, will not be well versed in the legal, economic, and social aspects of the European forest. Saunders introduces us to her topic by considering the word's etymology and three entries on "forest" from the OED. She notes the debate over the origin of the word "forest," but points readers in the direction of Latin foris 'outside,' while observing that some scholars go directly to either Latin forum, with its sense of 'under public jurisdiction,' or German forst (>forht'to hold' or foehren 'a wooded stretch of land') (p. 1). One dictionary entry states that a forest is a tree-covered tract of land that may also intermingle with pasture; the second entry focuses on the king's ownership of woodlands set apart for purposes of hunting; and the third entry equates a forest with uncultivated wasteland (p. 1). This information is brought to bear upon her development of the forest from real to symbolic, as explored in her analyses of selected texts. We learn further that woodlands dominated medieval Europe, although, she notes, clearing of the land in England seems to appear at an earlier date than on the Continent because of England's colonization by the Romans. These facts are likewise not insignificant, for she uses them to suggest a distance between the forest's reality and artistic representation. Here Saunders also mentions the swineherds, charcoal-burners, and woodcutters who dwelled and made a living in the forest, along with the hermits who chose the forest for their reclusive lifestyle. References to outlawry are brief but link the legal aspect of the forest to the literary, as in tales of Robin Hood. Indeed, historical information could well have been expanded throughout the other chapters without losing the reader's interest or the book's focus.

After discussing the historical forest, Saunders turns to Biblical tradition, marking both the wild man/madman topos found in the story of Nebudchadnezzar and the desert sojourns in the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus (forest, we are reminded, equates with wilderness, uncultivated land). A third and perhaps lesser known tradition constructed around the forest is the concept of chaos linked to hyle 'forest' in works associated with the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Later, neo-Platonic writers emphasized an equation of hyle with evil, cosmos 'order' with good. We learn that Chalcidius comments on "matter" by translating hyleas silva and that glosses by Servius on the Aeneid not only study grammar, but also return to the philosophical concepts of silva. Similar ideas associated with the School of Chartres appear to have been familiar to Chretien, and we are told and later shown how Chretien's familiarity with the notion of hyle is reflected in his romances.

Chapter Two focuses on classical antecedents—thus, "Avernus" of the subtitle—and naturally investigates the Aeneid as well as works by Ovid, Statius, and others. In the Aeneid, forests are the "landscape of exile" (p. 26) linked to destiny, providing no hint of the medieval semi-inhabited forest, despite supernatural elements, while in Ovid, particularly in The Metamorphoses, forests are the normal site of encounters between humans and gods and offer the potential for metamorphosis. With Ovid, not unsurprisingly, the scenes associating love and hunting reveal the darker side of passions. Saunders points out that the loss of descriptive elements in the medieval romans d'antiquite is a function of Christianity, for with Christianity, the need for a meeting place of gods and human beings was no longer vital, and so forest descriptions became blander. While shedding the association with the supernatural and predestination, the romans d'antiquite nevertheless accented the action of the individual; the forest is the stage for the hunt or a locus of exile, both of which link the forest to the court.

Having established the most important antecedents, Saunders now begins her survey of medieval literature. Although there are references to other European literatures, English and French works are her primary points of reference. With her eye on the twelfth century, Chapter Three (the longest, at 50 pages, and in many ways the heart of the study) is devoted to Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Beroul, and Thomas. With these authors, the forest acquires a new aspect of "delight, adventure and escape." Here we are situated in the "Broceliande" of the subtitle. Contrasting Marie and Chretien, Saunders observes that Marie's knights find adventure in the forest by chance, and the forest is the limen, a place of transition, an introduction to the other world. Chretien's knights errant actively seek adventure; indeed, the forest is the main focus of narrative action in all of Chretien's works but Cliges and is the focal point for a drama of identity. Again, we see the influence of the Greek idea of hyle in Chretien. It is to Saunders' credit that she manages to shed revealing light on Chretien despite the forced brevity to which her broad survey subjects her. She also offers an admirable comparison of the forests in Beroul and Thomas. In Thomas, the forest is a stage for irrational love, and the lovers are closely associated with it because of Tristan's superior hunting skills and Iseult's knowledge of herbs. On the other hand, Beroul's forest emphasizes hardship, revealing an "otherworldly rupture in the fabric of courtly society" (p. 88) and tying the illicit love to the outlaw tradition as well as to the Celtic concept of geis. In this chapter especially, historical, economic, and social aspects of the forest, developed from the discussion in the first chapter, would not have been unwelcome. The references to the werewolf motif in the discussion of Marie de France will be stimulating to many readers for a variety of reasons, especially because of the links established with the earlier discussion of Nebudchadnezzar.

The next chapters are concerned with various 13th-century contes and prose romances (Chapter Four), Merlin, the Grail, and lives of the saints (Chapter Five), and Middle English romances (Chapter Six). Malory earns a chapter (Seven), and finally Saunders looks at the forest from the vantage point of Spenser and Shakespeare (Chapter Eight). In the prose romances, the forest remains the site of adventure, but the greater emphasis on realism removes something of the forest's mystique found in earlier medieval writings, yielding instead what Saunders calls an odd mixture of the human and the supernatural that is rooted in verisimilitude, associated with the period's desire to explain and embroider. The addition of Grail material to romance literature leads to a refocussing on the divine and a stronger emphasis on wilderness that harks back to the hagiographic tradition. Just as the Marie's contes presented the forest as liminal, so do the saints' lives (e. g., Eustace, Hubert, Julian), for these are tales of religious conversion. Their influence on the Grail stories means that the once secular romance form becomes didactic.

The Middle English romances (Chapter Six) yield a multiplicity of readings of the forest—rape, idyll, hunt, other world, quest, madness—revealing the ambiguities in human nature. Saunders discusses, among other works, Sir Orfeo, where the forest is the meeting ground for the faery and the human but also a passage to the other world. She analyzes the move to social and moral realism in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a work in which the forest is both real and fantastic, "a fictional landscape poised midway between ernest and game" (p. 155). From the works of Chaucer, Saunders comments on Sir Thopas, The Book of the Duchess, and The Knight's Tale, where we are offered the reminder of the kinship between "wood" and "mad" ("wood"/"wode"). Her study of Malory focuses on the tales of Lancelot and Tristram, the greatest lovers in Arthurian romance, comparing these two by means of the forest experiences. Saunders describes the betrayal of Lancelot by the forest's enchantments that eventually lead him to the eremitic life of suffering that is to bring him to holiness. Tristram, on the other hand, has always been considered a "child of the forest" (like Perceval), delighting in his forest encounters. In Chapter Seven, Saunders shows how Malory's forest shifts from the vast, open world of adventure—the ideal—to the harsh terrain of the real; the ascetic hermit's cell becomes, at the end of Malory, a refuge from the real, all that remains of the ideal Arthurian world. Finally, in Chapter Eight, Saunders aims to show the forest's multilayered significance in Spenser, and its function as allegory. Then, she studies the forest settings of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, the "Arden" of the subtitle, to show us that the forest is now the essential landscape of transformation, having become the poet's world, a "literary other world" (p. 186).

By recalling Saunders' subtitle, we can see that the forest of "noisome" Avernus reflects the supernatural, the awe-inspiring encounters between gods and humans, visitations by the gods that change the destiny of mankind. Through Avernus, humans are linked to the underworld. In Broceliande, in the most masterful of works, we find individuals transformed by their mysterious experiences. In Broceliande, we can connect with the other world. Finally, in Arden, the forest belongs to the poet, the lone representative of human order, whose powers are linked to the divine, where, Saunders says, we view the landscape of the heart and "trees become books." The Forest of Medieval Romance, through its singular focus, is an impressive guide through romance literature, offering interesting analyses of selected scenes from medieval literature. The historical, economic, and social discussions of the first chapter could well have been extended in the various chapters, especially in Chapter Three's treatment of Broceliande (as well as the Waste Forest and the Forest of Morois). Saunders handles a wide range of fields with confidence and mastery. There are many topics that are only briefly noted in her work but deserving of further study elsewhere. These comments are not meant to point out flaws in the work itself, but to indicate the stimulating nature of the material Saunders has gathered in these pages.

In her epilogue, Saunders calls upon Wace's famous lines, "fol m'en revinc, fol i alai; / fol i alai, fol m'en revinc, / folie quis, por fol me tinc," to underscore that if the real never completely becomes fantasy in medieval romance, the forest functions to bridge that gap. This is a well-formulated work that can be read by student, scholar, and amateur alike, a welcome contribution to the field of medieval studies.