Richard J. Moll

title.none: Ingham, Sovereign Fantasies (Richard J. Moll)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.002 02.09.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard J. Moll, Suffolk University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Ingham, Patricia Clare. Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. iii, 288. ISBN: 0812236009.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.02

Ingham, Patricia Clare. Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Pp. iii, 288. ISBN: 0812236009.

Reviewed by:

Richard J. Moll
Suffolk University

In Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain, Patricia Clare Ingham uses post-colonial and psychoanalytic theory to read Arthurian narrative as a nexus of contestations over rival claims to British sovereignty. She argues "that late Middle English Arthurian romance offers a fantasy of insular union, an 'imagined community' of British sovereignty" (2). Few readers will find anything particularly striking about this claim and indeed several chapters offer little that is new. Chapter one, for example, concludes that Geoffrey's Historia "provides a way for a Norman aristocratic audience to capture the richness of a mythic Welsh past while still remaining the conquerors of those whose glorious history they wish to imagine as their own" (43). Chapter five explores the stanzaic Morte Arthur and after a lengthy digression on psychoanalytic theory, complete with the standard authorities of Freud, Lacan and Kristeva, we learn that "[i]n such a system women must remain loyal not to any sense of their own desire, but to a quickening of male aggressivity; they must impassion the war machine by passionately loving their soldiers" (154). Similarly, the closing discussion of Malory's Morte Darthur concludes that the text, for all of its "explicit rhetorical celebrations of Arthur as the greatest of British kings, joins together the most horrific aspects of a sovereign power overrun by excessive entanglements and kin-feuds" (224).

There are, however, new ideas here as well, and Ingham's innovation is to focus on the profound sense of loss common to much of the Arthurian corpus and to read that corpus with particular attention to its regional concerns. Arthurian texts, she claims, are projects which, paradoxically, invoke a lost Arthurian utopia to assert or confront claims to a future sovereign unity. These utopian fantasies were contested among English and Welsh interests, and between the North and South of England itself, as the different regions of Britain sought to hold back or extend centralized authority.

The innovations of the book, however, are undercut by some of the troubling uses of medieval and modern texts. The book gets off to a rough start, as Ingham uses Geoffrey's complaint about Arthurian historiography as one of her two epigraphs. Beneath this is William of Malmesbury's famous statement that Arthur ought "not to be dreamed of in false myths, but proclaimed in truthful histories." Arthur, claims William, "for a long time held up his tottering fatherland, and kindled the broken spirits of his countrymen to war" (Gesta regum Anglia, qtd. Ingham, 21). This oft-quoted passage was written c. 1125, some dozen years before Geoffrey's Historia, so it is unclear what William is talking about. Unfortunately, Ingham does not look at any text written before William's work, but instead implies that his comments refer to the Historia itself. The placement of the two passages establishes an implied chronology: Geoffrey comes first, William second. This impression is strengthened as Ingham goes on to assert: "William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales and William of Newburg [sic] all judge Geoffrey's history to be flawed.... Their criticisms emphasize the falseness of Geoffrey's popular account, characterizing the distinction between Geoffrey's and other narratives of early Britain in the opposition of fiction to truth. Geoffrey's 'false myths' are stacked against the 'truthful histories' read in William's work and Bede's... (21-22). Gerald of Wales and William of Newburgh do specifically complain about Geoffrey's fictions, but Ingham never cites those authors. William of Malmesbury's pre-Galfridian comments remain, throughout the early chapters of Ingham's study, the essential text for the conflict between rival Arthurian imaginings. Thus we learn that Geoffrey's text remains popular, "[d]espite the denigration of the imaginative excesses of these stories by historians like Malmesbury" (31).

Ingham's use of William of Malmesbury allows her to theorize that the conflict between truth and fiction had broader implications. Although William's account of Arthur clearly claims that the king himself "kindled the broken spirits of his countrymen to war" against Saxon invaders, Ingham reconstructs his sentence to expand its contemporary relevance. "William of Malmesbury", she claims, "alludes to the cultural power of Arthur's image, invoking the historic king as support for a tottering fatherland and praising Arthur's monumental greatness, a hero who can 'kindl[e] [sic] the broken spirits of his countrymen to war'" (22). By altering William's early twelfth-century grammar, therefore, his text is made to comment on Arthurian images throughout the Middle Ages, including those that are used to incite Welsh uprisings and claim Welsh continuity (as was done by Edward III and Henry VII). In their use of Arthurian traditions, therefore, poets in the service of Owain Glyn Dwr "are contesting the ownership of British sovereignty through the fantasy of a salvific return of Welsh rule, although these are exactly the kind of 'ravings' William of Malmesbury deplores as 'false myths'"(25). Ingham's third quotation of William forgets that his text refers to the distant past, and her representation of William's grammar (this time changed silently) reflects this: "At stake here is the desire to forbid the pleasures of Welsh creative makyng; at stake too may be the fear that enjoyment of Arthur might 'kindle [sic] the broken spirits' of the Welsh 'to war'" (30). I've lingered over Ingham's use of William of Malmesbury because the violence done to William's text begins in the first paragraph of the first chapter and it lingers in the reader's mind.

In chapter two Ingham explores the ambiguities of prophecy more closely. The early pages of the chapter rely on the standard secondary authorities (Scattergood, Taylor and Davies) for both interpretations and quotations of prophetic texts. She also relies on Caroline Eckhardt's list of "chronicles that include 'official' versions of Merlin's statements" which includes works by Robert of Gloucester, Mannyng, Trevisa, Castleford, the Short Metrical Chronicle and Yorkist miscellany collections (52-53). This is an eclectic list, since some of these authors (such as Robert of Gloucester and Mannyng) follow Wace and omit the lengthy Merlinic prophecies which she explores, while others (such as Thomas Castleford) include them. It is not clear, therefore, which of these represents the "official" version of Merlin's statements. Throughout her discussion of the prophecies and their commentaries Ingham shows how their insistence on British losses forges an "image of a newly common folk survival" which would "be powerfully resonant during times of English sovereign troubles" (68).

Ingham returns to the sense of loss in Arthurian narrative, but she expands her scope to argue that romance texts lament not only the loss of Arthurian sovereignty, but also the loss of interpretive options for Arthurian narrative itself. Chapter three explores the relationship between romance and history through the alliterative Morte Arthure. Ingham focuses on the pleasures of Arthurian Britain, and Wales in particular, as they are expressed in Arthur's profound lament at the death of Gawain. As Arthur vows to seek revenge until his own body is torn apart Ingham turns to Lacan to argue that Arthur does not so much mourn the loss of his sovereignty, represented by the death of Gawain and the dismemberment of his own body, as the loss of interpretive options for his narrative. "Gawain's death", argues Ingham, "encodes the loss of the utopic insular spaces and intimate kinship demarcated by Britain's broad isle. In other words, the Alliterative Morte Arthure mourns, through Gawain, the loss of an implicitly Welsh Arthur" (99). The book is strongest when Ingham places her texts within a clearly defined context. Chapter four begins with a look at Gerald of Wales' Description of Wales in which Gerald refigures the conquest of Wales as salvation (112) and identifies Wales as a site of exotic sexual dangers. Ingham then moves two centuries later to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As Gawain travels from the cultural center of Camelot to the wilds of northern Wales, Ingham sees a movement into the heterogeneous cultural milieu of the Cheshire poet. Heterogeneity, argues Ingham, is represented by the dizzying array of players in the poem: Arthur, Green Knight, Bertilak, Guenevere, Morgan la Faye, and Bertilak's lady. Sir Gawain, as Arthur's representative, is faced with a heterogeneous mix of conflicting loyalties, and he simplifies his dilemma by reading his adventure in gendered terms. Rather than deal with the complex desires that pull at him, Gawain refigures his choice as one between virile masculinity and the feminine aggression of Bertilak's lady and Morgan. Threats to Arthur's sovereignty posed by the exotic Green Knight are thereby transformed into feminine wiles, and the civil center, whatever its flaws, is thus obviously superior to a once-complex, and potentially attractive, exotic other.

Similarly, chapter six refrains from the vague references to the Wars of the Roses or Glyn Dwr's uprising which are sprinkled throughout the book, and looks carefully and critically at the representations of the 1458 "Love Day" pageant. Ingham explores the pageantry of the event in which warring Yorksts and Lancastrians joined together in an uncomfortable display of reconciliation, as well as the verse treatise Knyghthode and Bataile, and shows how the spectacle and text display an uneasy attempt to represent masculine militarism as brotherly unity. She then turns her attention to The Avowing of King Arthur and The Awntyrs off Arthure to show how these two northern texts echo many of the same themes, as antagonistic knights who challenge Arthur's sovereignty are folded awkwardly into the fellowship of the Round Table. Through these texts and events, "violence and battle come to be viewed as a means of joining regions into a single realm, and whole bodies of knights who were once rivals come to signify the singularity and wholeness of the united aristocratic fellowship, the idealized body of the realm" (190).

Finally, it should be noted that the book generally needs much more attention to both factual accuracy and technical mechanics (issues which should have been caught by Ingham's readers and editors). On the factual side, Merlin moved Stonehenge during Aurelius's reign, not Vortigern's (35); John Trevisa, not Nicholas, translated the Polychronicon (53); in the alliterative Morte, Arthur leaves Mordred as viceroy of Britain, not England (80, this error is particularly striking, given Ingham's concern with cultural difference); Arthur fights against the King with the Hundred Knights, not the King of the Hundred Hands (200). The book could also stand more editorial rigor. There seems to be an inordinate number of typos throughout. For example, in the one lengthy quotation of Middle English I checked (a page-long quote of the "Prophecy of the Six Kings"), there are at least thirty-five typos, several involving thorn and yogh. My favorite is the prophecy that "ße hote babes [i.e. baßes] shullen bicome colde" (65). The book is inconsistent in numerous editorial choices (for example, is it Grail or grail, Bertilak's Lady or lady, Caxton's Malory or Caxton's Malory, Civil War or civil war; are citations to Geoffrey's Historia by page number, or book and chapter, Griscom's edition or Thorpe's translation, and should they be in large caps or small caps or lower case?). Notes often repeat information which at some point has been moved into the main body of the text. Thus, for example, note 15 of chapter three describes Heng's theory of cannibalism and romance, but this is largely repeated on page 91. There is also a general confusion of notes which needs more attention throughout. For example, the sentence "Chivalric culture deeply prized bodily perfection in its soldiers, an image of wholeness, once again, depending upon gendered relations" (189), is glossed by the seemingly unrelated note 32: "For Caxton's text see The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, translated and printed by William Caxton. Fradenburg uses Lacanian categories to analyze Gilbert de Haye's Scots translation of the same text. City, Marriage, Tournament, 199ff" (260). Unfortunately, the quote from Caxton comes after the note, Gilbert de Haye is never mentioned in Ingham's work, Fradenburg's discussion of tournaments has little to do with Ingham's interests here, and a full citation of Caxton's text is never given. It does not even appear in the book's bibliography.

To some, these complaints will seem nitpicky, and perhaps some of them are. But collectively they pose a problem and, along with some of the questionable early readings of medieval texts, they leave the reader uneasy. A reader who was more sympathetic to Ingham's interest in post-colonial and psychoanalytic readings of medieval texts might also find the lengthy discussions of Bhabha, Suleri, Lacan, Kristeva and Freud worth the time and space, but for me they often lead the hard way to the well-worn interpretation. To be sure, Ingham has constructively highlighted the regional concerns of insular Arthurian literature, which is all too often discussed under the broad linguistic subheadings of "Latin," "Middle English," and "French." It is at these points, where Ingham places the objects of her study carefully within a specific context, that her readings are most insightful and original. It is not surprising, perhaps, that it is these studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Avowing of King Arthur which have already appeared, in slightly different forms, as articles. It is when Ingham approaches her texts closely and critically, within a clear and well-defined historical context, that the book is at its best.