Carolyne Larrington

title.none: Wilson, Plots and Powers (Carolyne Larrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.014 02.12.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Carolyne Larrington, St. John's College, Oxford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. Pp. xvi, 234. $59.95. ISBN: 0-8130-2121-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.14

Wilson, Anne. Plots and Powers Magical Structures in Medieval Narrative. Gainsville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. Pp. xvi, 234. $59.95. ISBN: 0-8130-2121-9.

Reviewed by:

Carolyne Larrington
St. John's College, Oxford

Plots and Power is the culminating work in a series of four books in total written between 1976 and 1988 which explore the identification, definition and role of the magical plot in traditional tales. The preceding books, in part, represent earlier stages in Wilson's development of her theory of magic as a system of non-rational thought; some of the material in the present volume therefore revisits some of the texts treated previously, and, to some extent, presupposes a familiarity with, for example, the author's treatment of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a previous book.

Wilson argues in her preface and introduction that certain traditional tales contain 'magical' plots while others do not. The magical plot is a non-rational or irrational system of thought which exists very often beneath the level of conventional plot, creating a sense of uneasiness, an awareness that the text is actually 'about' something other than it purports to be, and that the surface, rational plot, and the submerged 'irrational' plot are not aware of each other. Typically, there may be 'a suggestion that the chief character has committed a serious crime, while this is not given the treatment or comment that it needs; instead, I may find that some minor or courtly misdemeanor has taken a prominent position' (29).

The magical plot exists, most probably, at an unconscious level, as far as author and reader are concerned; its objects of interest appear, in the texts examined in this work, to be, firstly, incestuous desires and the successful resolution of these in marriage -- the purification plot, secondly, the achievement of sovereignty, often linked with the first type of plot in that sovereignty is obtained by finding the 'right', i.e. non-incestuous, marriage partner -- the sovereignty plot, and, thirdly, the defended plot, the novelty in this book, in which magical devices make possible the exploration of transgressive and taboo desires, sexual or violent in nature.

Wilson is anxious to distance her methodology from psychoanalytic criticism, though both make use of Anna Freud's concept of 'undoing', and of emotions of fear and guilt, particularly in reference to parental figures. Wilson's distinction of her own work from psychoanalytic criticism characterises the latter as concerned with the therapeutic, and with the effects of writing and reading on the individual author and reader, while she uncovers the operation of magic in a communal or universal mind. Defining the function of psychoanalytic criticism strictly in terms of the therapeutic allows Wilson to make claims for her approach as unique and distinctive; to this reviewer it seemed that much of what is revealing and illuminating in the several close analyses of tales which follow the expository introduction are precisely broadly psychoanalytic preoccupations. A similarly partial definition of 'the myth approach' (4) in terms of the considerably outdated views of Gilbert Murray and Jessie Weston of the ritual hero as essentially sacrificial in nature allows Wilson to discard the insights which more recent mythological criticisms might offer. There is a return to mythology, with a somewhat dismissive account of LÚvi-Strauss (16), whose methodology is regarded as 'somewhat mechanistic'; Wilson argues that her theory is deductive, arising from the questions prompted by illogicalities within the primarily medieval texts which stimulated her enquiry, rather than proceeding from the LÚvi-Straussian premise that the mind contains systematic structuring devices, and uncovering them within the corpus of stories the reader examines. The whole text must be considered as a hermeneutic; the importation of parallels from other texts, or the imposition of a pre-existing theory is forbidden. The text, read from a 'magical' perspective, will answer the questions it raises. The author makes much of the process by which she has arrived at her current theory; her insistent first person ('I decided to try this out', 'I discovered', 'I suspected') will strike some readers as unnecessarily personal, even self-aggrandising in tone.

Wilson roots her method in a Proppian analysis of 'moves' within the text, functional elements in the story structure which permit the working out of the 'magical' plot, but she also draws upon narratology. Despite what may be happening at the level of the surface plot - BÚroul's narrator's sympathy with the lovers in his version of the Tristan story, for example, the 'magical plot' has no narrator, no point of view other than that of the hero. The audience, as individuals, identify with the hero or heroine, allowing the individual self to experience ways of defending the self from threat, to effect change in the environment or self, and to permit control, addressing both internal, psychological, and external threats. Again, so far, so close to understandings which might be characterised as psychoanalytical, but Wilson asserts that the essential difference between the psychoanalytic narrative and the magical is precisely the performative aspect, the story-telling allows safe, ritualised dispelling of the guilt and fear of each audience member, strengthening the individual's sense of self and illusion of control.

The introduction: 'Questions, Definitions and Practice', which sets out these theoretical considerations, is followed by a section labelled 'Introductory Studies', in which the author illustrates her thesis from a number of texts, both medieval and modern, among them, Sir DegarrÚ, Bevis of Hampton, Lanval; Rebecca and the unfamiliar -- at any rate to this reviewer -- evangelical romance The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner. Sir DegarrÚ illustrates nicely the kind of textual inconsistency that alerts the reader to the presence of a magical plot -- the role of the gloves given to the hero by his mother. He cannot marry any woman unless she tries them on -- but they will only fit his mother. The story thus consists of two moves: the quest for the mother, which, once achieved, removes the fear of incest from the second move, the quest for sovereignty. The Wide, Wide World contains a puzzling episode in which the heroine is sent on a lengthy and ill-motivated visit to a family in Scotland; here she has to obey a series of dictates which separate her from her past life in America. Yet somehow this clears the way for her American adoptive brother to turn up and claim her as his bride. Wilson shows convincingly how the apparent irrationality of the Scottish episode acts as a purification ritual, distancing the heroine from her adoptive brother, dispelling fears of incest and transforming her into a fit bride. Yet the time in Scotland is not a test, in the way that Jane Eyre's time with St John Rivers tests the strength of her feeling for Rochester, but rather a necessary if illogical move in a family drama.

After the case studies, the book continues with analyses of EmarÚ-type narratives, where the heroine must escape the threat of incest, then purify herself through inexplicable suffering to find a stable marriage partner. Wilson shows convincingly how the magical plot is present here, but has been excised, along with the incest motif, from Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale. Following chapters deal with the King Lear plot, the magical plot of the Carl of Carlisle texts, as against the straightforward testing narrative of Bricriu's Feast, the Tristan romances and the Amleth/Hamlet story from Saxo. In these, the author shows, by and large, successfully, how illogical detail -- why the Carl of Carlisle should require Gawain to throw a spear at his face with all his force -- points to an underlying magical plot in which Gawain's repressed desires, to use violence against his uncourtly host and to make love with the Carl's wife are safely contained ('defended' in Wilson's terminology) within the narrative, through the Carl's invulnerability and complete control of the situation. The Amleth story too is read in terms of achieving sovereignty through exploring the possibility of sexual relations with a series of unsuitable female figures, a foster-sister, the mother, a low-born queen, until usurpation is exorcised and Amleth's (albeit temporary) sovereignty is sealed by attaining both a kingdom and a wife.

Wilson's study is amply provided with charts summarising the majority of narratives under discussion which analyse the 'moves' within the magical plots, and the book is handsomely produced and painstakingly proof-read. The insights into narrative and plot are often compelling, certainly convincing, and her theory provides a better way of accounting for illogicality within the text than authorial incompetence or ill-understood source material. However, in the end, although the work insists on a methodology which may be found fruitful, and the identification of different kinds of magical plot provide a shorthand categorisation for widespread narrative patterns, in the final analysis the texts turn out to be about power, sexual desire, what Derek Brewer has characterised as the family drama, social transgression, fear and guilt, just as we knew all along. The larger claims for Wilson's method, in effect (though she would reject this wholeheartedly) a blend of psychoanalytic and structuralist theory, remain to be tested further to see if they really can facilitate discoveries within and about texts which are not to be arrived at by other means.