Carolyne Larrington

title.none: Busby, Dalrymple, eds., Arthurian Literature XIX (Carolyne Larrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.030 04.02.30

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

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

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Busby, Keith, Roger Dalrymple, eds. Arthurian Literature XIX: Comedy in Arthurian Literature. Series: Arthurian Literature, vol. 19. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 230. $70.00 0-859-91745-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.30

Busby, Keith, Roger Dalrymple, eds. Arthurian Literature XIX: Comedy in Arthurian Literature. Series: Arthurian Literature, vol. 19. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. viii, 230. $70.00 0-859-91745-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Carolyne Larrington
St. John's College, Oxford

The latest issue of Arthurian Literature is, with the exception of one article, concerned with the subject of comedy in Arthurian literature. The individual essays deal with a large number of texts, ranging from the works of Chretien to the late Irish Eachtra an Amadain Mhoir. Despite the eclecticism of the contents it is clear that the texts have more in common than simply their Arthurianness. Time and again the contributors find themselves engaging with the idea of reecriture, primarily of Chretien, whose poems, not themselves lacking in comedy, form a series of narratives, motifs and topoi, which later texts self-consciously subvert, knowingly allude to, multiply and distort. Another theme is the concept of subversion itself; the very texts which extol and exemplify knightly behavior contains elements, often linked to the fabliau genre, which question or critique the tenets of the chivalric project. Contributors are often well aware of the potential problem of cultural specificity: do we laugh at the same things that the medieval audience found funny? Donald Hoffman notes that for the modern reader, the image of Guenevere laughing so much at the spectacle of Dinadan dressed in women's clothing, that she falls down on the floor, is considerably funnier than the humiliation of the hapless outsider-knight. Fourthly, though comedy as a modality is considered antithetical to tragedy, the effect of the comic is frequently to point forward to the end of the Arthurian polity, to the point where all smiles cease; as Elizabeth Sklar comments, "in the end, the 'smylyng' seems a little strained, and the 'laughyng' sounds, perhaps, a hollow note" (l97).

Nevertheless there is much fun to be had on the way. Angelica Rieger notes the similarities between the adventure of the lion in Yvain and the concentration in comic-strips on privileged moments in the protagonist's life, depending for their effect on brevity and speed. The parrot in Le Chevalier du Papegau in Marilyn Lawrence's study is an unequivocally jolly character. Identified with the figure of the professional minstrel, commenting on and recording Arthur's prowess he also plays the role of the Helper, warning, prophesying and consoling. Norris Lacy shows how Gawain's "quintessentially 'Gawainesque'" (68) behavior in La Vengeance Raguidel often thwarts our textual expectations, and argues that burlesque is by no means a feature only of late texts. Clearly the outline of Gawain's traditional character had been fixed as early as 1220. Gawain is also the focus of Peter Noble's comparison of comedy in Les Merveilles de Rigomer and Hunbaut. In the Merveilles, Noble argues, the author develops Chretien's ironic attitude towards Lancelot, making sure that Gawain remains superior to the more-recently arrived hero. Lancelot is found hard at work in the kitchens of Rigomer, where he has become "gros et bestial" (fat and beastly) and now uncommonly proud of his baking skills (82), a sight which reduces Gawain to tears. Knights are fooled by cunning damsels; the chivalric world is cheerfully, but unmaliciously mocked, while in Hunbaut the comedy is more serious, the butt of the humor is the readiness of knights to adopt uncourtly methods in order to achieve success.

Christine Ferlampin-Acher's substantial study of the marvelous and the comic attends to the comedy which accompanies the marvelous when meaning is troubled by characters disagreeing on what they have seen, or a solitary character catches single glimpses of a wonderful object. Later romances depend on making wonder banal, the inscribed reader often nudging the audience into laughter as an appropriate response. Elizabeth Archibald is not the only contributor to draw upon classical formulations of comedy, noting that anagnorisis, the recognition scene, contributes to the gaiety of the early days at Arthur's court where, in Malory's version, the revelation of the parentage and attributes of Tor offers a readerly satisfaction which is also part of the pleasure of the Tale of Sir Garethand other "Fair Unknown" stories. Recognition is tactfully managed in the case of Galahad. Malory, as his sources did also, wisely eschews any recognition scene between Mordred and Arthur, "this one was better left out" (16).

The darker tone of Archibald's initial article is increasingly echoed in later essays. Karen Pratt's thoughtful discussion of humor in Silence corrects a number of mistranslations and misapprehensions among earlier scholars at the same time as she notes the amusing intertextual relationship of the romance with Chretien, and posits the idea of "intergeneric comedy," a concept which recurs in different guises in a number of chapters, particularly where the irruption of the fabliauesque is noted. It is not just fabliau, but also clerical misogynist writing and didactic literature about women with which Silence is in dialogue; Pratt notes the ways in which the "proto-feminist portrayal of the exemplary 'masculine' hero" beloved of modern reception is challenged by "the essentialist narrator and mysogynous (sic) characters" (102). The more serious implications of comedy, those which point towards the collapse of chivalric ideals and the final catastrophe are operative in Benedicte Milland-Bove's discussion of Guerrhet's amorous misadventures in the Prose Lancelot. The comedy of Guerrhet's failure to persuade a succession of damsels to accompany him on his adventures gives way to his abduction and rape of a woman whose husband he kills. Milland-Bove shows how sexual imbalance mirrors social imbalance, how the comedy of repetition, and Guerrhet's figuration as a comic antithesis of Lancelot is brought into question as the fabliau world impinges on the chivalric, and the violence escalates. Guerrhet becomes embroiled in a Damsel-in-a-Tent episode, a motif which is a site for comedy when Lancelot or Gawain are involved, but which here goes horribly wrong.

Francesco Zambon ably demonstrates the different characterizations of Dinadan in the Prose Tristan and the Tavola Ritonda. In the original text Dinadan is humorous, oppositional, yet still contained within the chivalric world; he loves women and fights bravely. In the Italian text, Zambon argues, Dinadan is now positioned outside the chivalry he criticizes and ultimately rejects, reacting violently to women, even calling Isotta a "putana"(whore). Dinadan now reflects the interests of the new merchant class of Tuscany who consume, but do not identify with, romance. The real butts of derision are those who laugh at Dinadan, not the alienated truth-teller himself. Marjolein Hogenbirk uncovers the depiction of Kay the Seneschal in the Dutch Lancelot Compilation. Although her conclusions are stated only briefly, she suggests that in comparison to the French original, the expansion of Kay's role in Die Wrake Ragisel section of the compilation argues for coherent thinking about character as part of the process of cyclification. Her essay is juxtaposed to the one piece in the volume which does not concern itself with comedy, Frank Brandsma's contention that the latter half of the Prose Lancelot , from the "Charrette" onwards, was composed, whether by the "architect" or by its author(s) as a single piece. Both authors make use of the concept of "cyclification"; though Brandsma has an important argument to make, his article sits oddly in a collection which otherwise exclusively investigates comedy in Arthurian romance.

Donald Hoffman's humane discussion of comic moments in the earlier part of Malory's narrative continually looks beyond the text, towards the later, specifically Arthurian comedy of Mark Twain, T. H. White,and Monty Python. He also argues for continuities between the grimmer Old English humor, transmitted through the alliterative tradition and the Alliterative Morte to the "Tale of Arthur and Lucius," and forwards to the English comedy of manners, and to the picaresque, to Fielding and beyond. Hoffman notes "the problematic absurdity of the Tristram world" (184), a world which is not necessarily funny, but where Alexander the Orphan, for example, can spend a year guarding a ruin, and where La Cote Male Tayle can apparently forget to avenge the father whose tattered and blood-stained garment he wears in his adventures. Elizabeth Sklar also deals with Malory, noting the "nuggets of wit and even low humour" in the "Tale of Sir Lancelot" (189). Here fabliau plot elements-- Lancelot climbing a tree in his underwear, another damsel-in-a-tent episode, or the death of Pedyvere's wife are noted as "reciprocally subversive." Lancelot's innocence and trusting nature will be important elements in the somber future of the hero and the Round Table. Finally, and more hilariously, Linda Gowans offers an extended analysis of the Eachtra an Amadain Mhoir, a late Irish tale based loosely on the Conte du Graal. Yet even here, as the Big Fool of the title goes on his picaresque way, gaining honor and respect, seducing women, and coming through a final test of trustworthiness and obedience to his host, a strange episode at the heart of the tale, in which the Big Fool apparently falls in love with a dying youth, praying to God for him for the first time in the romance, and in which he is powerless to prevent the youth's death, suggests, as Gowans comments, that perhaps "an element of homosexual tragedy [lies] at the core of this otherwise robustly heterosexual comedy" (230).

Many of these essays, some slighter, others more substantial pieces of work, stem from papers presented at the nineteenth International Congress of the International Arthurian Society in 1999, which must have been a fun-packed conference. Handsomely produced with only a few typographical errors, its contents, without exception, present much of interest to scholars interested in medieval comedy, or the different ways in which Arthurian texts operate.