contributor.author: Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University

title.none: Blanch and Wasserman, From Pearl to Gawain

identifier.other: baj9928.9608.001 96.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University, roperg@acad.nwmissouri.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Blanch, Robert J. and Julian N.Wasserman. From Pearl to Gawain: 'Forme to Fynisment'. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. Pp. viii, 207. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1348-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.08.01

Blanch, Robert J. and Julian N.Wasserman. From Pearl to Gawain: 'Forme to Fynisment'. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. Pp. viii, 207. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-8130-1348-8.

Reviewed by:

Greg Roper, Northwest Missouri State University
roperg@acad.nwmissouri.edu

Criticism of the works of the Pearl-poet has been fizzling a bit of late. Once the poems of the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough, ready to join the pantheon of the canonical A-list (in a strong second place behind Chaucer) in 14th-century English studies, reaching that critical mass of interest where articles and books start to flow almost of their own accord. Surely in the 60s and 70s Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were more read and taught than, for instance, Piers Plowman, and the Marie Boroff translation of the latter became enshrined in the Norton Anthology, that ur-text of the typical American English department. It's not hard to see why the poems appealed so much to a generation weaned on the New Criticism: intricately structured, seemingly self-coherent, with no identifiable author anywhere in sight, Pearl and Gawain were the perfect texts for critics who believed in the heresy of paraphrase and the intentional fallacy. And the fact that the poems had readily available cruces of interpretation--the state of the dreamer at the end of Pearl, the court's laughter at the end of Gawain, the odd structure of Purity--must have seemed to guarantee that there would be an endless supply of articles and books on these poems.

But something funny happened on the way to the parade, and it happened not to the texts, but to us. Our modernist tastes changed to postmodernist ones: we started liking that shaggy, mixed-up, weird text Piers a lot more, started identifying better with its odd incompleteness, its political convictions, its outraged voice, more than we did with the calm, theologically conservative, craft-laden poetics of the Cotton Nero poet. Maybe we also grew tired of wrangling for the nth time over the same crux, as well, and newer theoretical frameworks that dealt with language philosophies, history, and politics just created more fascinating work to do with Piers than with, say, Patience. A few tried to bring deconstructive or semiotic approaches to these poems, but despite their intelligence, they always seemed somehow off the mark, missing the poet's central concerns, like, perhaps, trying to show that Ronald Reagan was really, deep down, a deconstructionist: I suppose if you tried hard enough you could do it, but you'd be missing the central character of the man and his influence on American society.

Robert Blanch and Julian Wasserman do not ignore the gains of recent theory in their book From Pearl to Gawain: Forme to Fynisment, but neither do they try to make the manuscript into an au courant postmodernist collection. They draw on their combined decades of reading and meditating on this text to create what seems to me to be the most complete, thoughtful, sensible, and perceptive reading these poems have received in a long time. Their readings are the kind to make you say not "my, what an unusual, creative way to read against the grain!", but "of course, yes, why didn't I see that more clearly before?"

Their central premise is that the four poems should be read together, "intratextually", as one coherent statement. They note the pattern of past Gawain-poet scholarship to divide the poems, treating them as separate units. "For example," they write, "even a casual observer might note that Gawain books often have green covers while books on Pearl frequently have white ones . . . Books that treat themes in the whole manuscript invariably have four chapters, each devoted primarily to a single work in the manuscript" (2). In opposition to this trend, Blanch and Wasserman say, "We should . . . pay more heed to the juxtaposition of these four poems in the same manuscript, brought together in a deliberate act of association either by the poet or by the compiler who acted as the poet's first literary critic" (3). They compare the manuscript to Malory or to Joyce's Dubliners, then, as a way to explain their project, two helpful analogies which seem obvious only after they have stated them. More tellingly, they compare the whole manuscript to Purity itself as a text of several stories with an underlying unity tying them together (4). Thus the book becomes a series of explorations of this unity and the various ways in which the themes and purposes of the four poems overlap.

But more than overlap: for Blanch and Wasserman, the poems form a carefully ordered developing line of thought created by the order of the poems in the manuscript. Thus they first take up the subject of history: "the four poems . . . delineate a temporal continuum that spans the entire course of history" (4). Thus *Purity* begins in eternity, moves on to biblical history, and moves through the book of Daniel; Patience takes us into the time of the later prophets; Gawain runs from the pagan past, through the "recent past as embodied by Arthurian Camelot" and ends in "the poet's own present" by referring to the contemporary "toun" (5). Pearl brings us into the historical present of the narrator and beyond that to the "transtemporal, although decidedly apocalyptic, New Jerusalem" (5). Of course this puts Pearl out of order in the manuscript, but Blanch and Wasserman convincingly suggest that the very circular nature of the Pearl and of these poems is a commentary on how "the first shall be last" and how "in my end is my beginning" (5-7). Thus, as they note, "the manuscript itself thus might be thought of as a homily, moving like Purity--or, for that matter, the discourse of the Pearl-maiden--from an announced abstract subject through progressively concrete exposition, from abstract to concrete, from the otherworldly spiritual Pearl to the overtly time-bound and 'secular' Gawain" (7-8) with the memory of the ultimate ending in the New Jerusalem (from Pearl) still haunting the readers' minds. Citing the Confessions, which recur constantly in this study as the model for the conservative theology underlying its poetics, the authors say that Pearl, and by implication, the thematic import of the manuscript as a whole, "moves from personal history to a revelation of the divine process of which the individual is both microcosm and part"(7).

In the first chapter, then, Wasserman and Blanch begin at the ending of the manuscript, taking up the question of the contemporary society as it is presented in Gawain. What holds--or should hold--such a society together is the "proper stewardship of the word", shared values embodied in a system of signs to which all consent. But the poem betrays Camelot as a kingdom of "noyse", "verbal obtuseness" like that of Belshazzar, "a type of Babel with each member using his own unique language to encode, to hide, rather than to disclose meaning" (24). As a result, the court is "no longer able to absorb or reintegrate what Gawain has learned into its own sign system", and convert the "'trwe token' into little more than a fashion statement" (24). They thus deftly and intelligently work their way up to and through one crux--the laughter. And while I am still not completely convinced of this "serious" reading of the laughter--I prefer the one that says the court is laughing at itself as much as at Gawain, and does learn, albeit in a partial way, the meaning of the garter--Blanch and Wasserman came closer than anyone else to making me change my mind on this matter.

In the second chapter, the authors use an analysis of medieval oath-taking to undergird their argument. They show that the parts of an oath in the middle ages consisted of the stipulations (the "quid pro quo") and the sworn oath--or "forwarde" (the promise to fulfill the stipulations). Central to their reading in this chapter is the medieval legal notion that the validity of an oath comes from "goud wylle", that is, that the oath is made of free assent and that the oath-taker has the ability to make such a promise; without both of these present, the oath is invalid. Thus "goud wylle" involves voluntarily limiting oneself; a vow is a "self-limiting action". What follows, then, is a marvelously astute reading of the ways that Gawain at Hautdesert is making vows without "goud wylle"; the contrast is between this castle, where the principles of "limited volition or will harnassed by reason and moderation" and the court at Camelot, ruled by a life of Bahktinian carnivalesque unrestricted will. And so the tests of Gawain are a way of testing whether he will choose a life of self-limited will or "embrace more comfortable bonds to earthly pleasure" (39). And while Gawain "gradually learns how to limit his will" (41) through this testing, the court to which he returns has not changed, still lives willfully.

At this point in the text, I found myself wondering about the authors' promised "intratextuality"; the book seemed overly focused on Gawain to the almost complete exclusion of the other three poems. And while Gawain does seem the proper focus for chapters on social structure and oath-taking, one wonders why Blanch and Wasserman could not have worked in thoughts about these subjects in the other two poems, where linguistic-social structure and oath-taking are also prominent. Perhaps the kind of density I am hoping for is not possible; perhaps there has to be a focal text for the argument (in Chapter Three, it is Pearl), with something more than passing references to the others. It strikes me that what Blanch and Wasserman are striving for here is something akin to a hypertext environment that allows one to follow the "links" of a theme in various directions, so that no one text has to take prominence. It might be fun to see a hypertext version of this book written some day. But no matter: in the last two chapters, they do the best anyone can in the linear mode of a codex, and in fact, the rapid switching back and forth between poems is a real strength of these sections--all the more reason, I think, why I missed the intratextuality in the first two or three chapters.

The third chapter takes up the subject of miracles, and of "kynde"--that rational order of nature which forms God's "oath" to humans. As I mentioned, *Pearl* becomes the focal text here, along with Patience, for those two texts challenge the question of miracles and human response to them most directly. Of course, the paradox is that miracles only seem miraculous to human reason, and in fact, as the authors point out, it is the human reliance on reason (often in the manuscript symbolized by Aristotle) that creates the greatest fools. In a marvelous turn, the authors then take us back to Gawain. Here, deprived of the authoritative voice of Yahweh or the Pearl-maiden, Gawain and the readers are in the ambiguous human world, trying to discern which things are genuine miracles (and thus of the true world of "kynde") and which are merely deceptive wonders. Gawain's shield, as the authors note, embodies his own ambiguity: on the one side a picture of the Virgin, on the other a magical talisman, he can't be sure which to trust to get him through this test alive.

The battleground in these poems, then, is clear: the grace of God, the willfulness of man. And in the last two chapters, the authors take up two foci that make this even more clear. In Chapter Four they do a fine reading of manuscript illumination to discuss the difference between the hand of God (his creative power, the world as His "hondework") and the human hand, which includes some of the niftiest readings of the manuscript's illuminations I have read. And in Chapter Five, the authors do a very nice close reading of pronouns in the texts to suggest the vast differences between the self-centered "I" and the communal "we/us" of the Christian community. Again, however, the greatest contrast is between *Gawain*, with its narrator "whose reliability is suspect and whose powers are at times limited" and who thus creates grave problems of interpretation, and *Pearl*, whose narrator becomes a part of the text, who is "vying for a position at the center of the poem" with the Pearl-maiden.

By the end of From Pearl to Gawain, one feels a bit superior: "yeah, so what?" I found myself saying, "A bit of Augustine here, some close reading there, with some reading of manuscript illuminations to break up the monotony, a reference to Bahktinian carnival once or twice to satisfy those whose simply must have current jargon thrown in. Why didn't this make the text strange to me, in the way I have become used to poststructuralist criticism doing? What do I know that I didn't know before?" And then, slowly, it hit me: I know plenty. I will, for instance, never want to read (or teach) these four poems in isolation again, but will see them as a coherent unit of thought. I will see the interlocking notions of language, oaths, miracles and pronouns as the real "endeless knot" of the manuscript. And I will have a better way than ever to teach my students about the "law of kynde" as late medieval artists portrayed it. Most of all, I have a new sense of just how carefully crafted, beautifully finished poems these four works are.

I have become so used to criticism that calls strident attention to itself (and to its authors' private lives) that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of reading scholarship where the authors feel the poetry is more important than they are, where decades of learning are seamlessly and unpretentiously assimilated into a critical argument, where medieval Christianity is taken as a deeply serious and moving set of beliefs rather than as a "technology of self" or an oppressive regime, where the authors' private lives are subsumed into their professional, scholarly goals. (However, having been in the past four or five years one of the "Joly compaignye at Kalamazoo" to whom the book is dedicated, I do miss at times the playful wit of Blanch and Wasserman; I still await a book which will do credit to how funny Gawain and Patience are, how much my classes laugh as we discuss them, and except for a couple of moments--read the index carefully, and do go ahead and read the last sentence first--we don't get that from the usually inveterate punsters Blanch and Wasserman.) Of course personal views are present if one wants to look for them; in the first chapter about the breakdown of a society, the authors could, if they had wished, gone off into a coloratura solo about the political and social ills of 1990s America. But they didn't--they didn't need to; they trusted that the readers who lust for that sort of thing would be able to take the point and move on to the more interesting and demanding problem of reading these poems. This is one of those books which cause one to say not "how clever" but "of course", and then realize two days later that you wouldn't know any of the things you now so blithely say "of course" to had it not been for reading the book.

So I don't know if From Pearl to Gawain will knock anyone's socks off, or revivify Pearl-poet studies out of the doldrums to which it has been slowly sinking. I doubt it will become any kind of a sensation in medieval studies; I rather suspect not. It's not flashy enough; it encourages us to turn back to the poems, reading them carefully and thoughtfully, rather than to run out and read the new name at the top of the theoretical hit list. And if we as a profession prefer to do the latter these days more than the former, we have only our own prejudices to blame.