Denyse Delcourt

title.none: Huot, Postcolonial FIctions (Denyse Delcourt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0709.016 07.09.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Denyse Delcourt, University of washington, jdd@u.washington.du

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Huot, Sylvia. Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest: Cultural Identities and Hybridities. Gallica, vol. 1. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. vii, 234. $85.00 ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-104-3, ISBN-10: 1-84384-104-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.09.16

Huot, Sylvia. Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest: Cultural Identities and Hybridities. Gallica, vol. 1. Woodbridge, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. vii, 234. $85.00 ISBN-13: 978-1-84384-104-3, ISBN-10: 1-84384-104-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Denyse Delcourt
University of washington

During the last few years, the field of postcolonial criticism has continued to broaden. Reserved mainly at first for cultures that were once properly colonial and framed chronologically by the 19th and 20th centuries, postcolonial studies has become the foundation for the analysis of cultures that were as chronologically and socially remote from this time frame as, for instance, Anglo-Saxon England and medieval France. If this kind of analysis often produces remarkable results-as is the case with this book by Sylvia Huot-we should perhaps pause to question the pertinence of "colonial" and "post-colonial" as terms when we bring them to bear on the middle ages. As others have suggested, it would perhaps be more appropriate, rather, to draw upon postcolonial criticism in order to develop a terminology and a conceptual framework better suited to the specificity of medieval culture. Still, for those who wish to conserve the term "postcolonial" in their approach to the middle ages, the reasons are often valid. By questioning the equation of colonialism with modernity, for example, certain medievalists hope to show that most of the key elements of postcolonial discourse were already inherent to medieval culture. Although she shares this point of view, Huot makes clear, in her introduction to Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest, that her goal is not to establish "a definitive relationship between specific literary and ideological expressions of the modern era and those of the medieval period. Still less [to] argue for an essentialist leveling of all forms of imperialism and colonialism throughout European history" (10). What Huot does propose in this book is to invoke post-medieval colonialism "as a kind of backdrop or counterpoint"(10) for reading the vast Roman de Perceforest, which dates from around 1340.

In her introduction, Huot first presents the case for considering the Perceforest as a proto-colonial work, beginning with the fact that it wishes to construe itself as a "chronicle" of the conquest by Alexander the Great of an England that was wild or "savage" awaiting an intervention from without that might civilize it. Given that the whole of Perceforest deals with the difficult and changing relations, as they passed from acceptance to resistance, between the natives of Great Britain and their Greek conquerors, the colonialist approach that Huot proposes seems justified. As a preface to the close reading that she proposes to bring to the Perceforest, Huot exposes five concepts which, she argues, play a central role both in this romance and in post-medieval colonialist discourse. The first concept ("Godlike Conquerors") embodies "a cherished fantasy of European colonialism that the conquering rulers seem like superhuman and supernatural beings to their new subjects, and this notion appears in Perceforest." (11). The second ("The Civilising Mission") deals with another colonialist concept at work in this romance, according to which the conqueror manifests a benevolent force "graciously accepting the task of bestowing civilization on those who either never had it or unfortunately lost it." (11-12). The third ("Woman Liberation"), bears on the conquerors' appropriation of the native woman as an "object" to be protected from the sexual violence that prevails in the males of her people. The fourth ("Colonial Insecurities"), marks "the colonialist's struggles to preserve a sense of self in an alien surrounding." (15) The fifth ("Colonial Desire") is little other than the obverse of the conqueror's insecurity, and it concerns the sentiment of superiority that he feels with regard to the conquered, who are supposed to be "awestruck by the conquerors and grateful for their attentions." (17)

Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest is divided into three parts of unequal length. The first part, entitled "Founding Myths: Nature, Culture, and the Production of a British Kingdom," is devoted mostly to the second book of Perceforest, in which the new king of Scotland, chosen by Alexander, decides to explore his territory. King Gadifer discovers in the Desert d'Escoce a remarkably "primitive" people living in the most sauvage of forests. According to Huot, this discovery corresponds to the topos of the "first encounter with the savages" normally associated with the Renaissance. Anticipating the descriptions of the inhabitants of the New World, notably those of Jacques Cartier, the Perceforest represents the natives of Scotland, not as "noble savages," but as beings who have been deprived for too long of the benefits of civilization. If Huot's analysis of this "First Encounter" and of the political and ecological transformations that ensue from it is generally excellent, the section entitled "Testing Boundaries: Colonial Culture and Indigenous Nature" is particularly penetrating. I refer most of all to the pages she devotes to the appropriation of nature by the Greek conquerors in Perceforest as a realm to be managed, formed and finally recreated as an artifice (mechanical birds that perfectly imitate the birds' songs; sumptuous silk abounding in flowers and various plants, etc.). What Huot makes obvious is that what one calls "culture" is a fundamentally hybrid construct. Indeed, Huot concludes, neither the concept of "nature" nor that of "culture" is ever stable: "What emerges [in most of Western thought] as a constant is a pervasive sense of difference, an endless series of oppositions and limitations across the elusive "nature- culture" divide."(71)

The second part, "Heteronormative Sexuality and the Mission Civilisatrice" deals with the manner in which Kings Perceforest and Gadifer undertake to govern the sexuality of their new subjects, thereby serving their own interests. Huot draws attention to the fact that the very first law that Perceforest imposes is to forbid rape as punishable by death as it was broadly practiced by a group of "arch-primitive" people identified as the lignaige Darnant. However benevolent this law may seem, its effect is also to project the conquerors' own violence onto the natives, thereby transforming the former into "saviors." Or, as Huot puts it, "the violence of expansionist or despotic rule is made manifest as rape and bastardization when practised by "them"...But when it is practised by "us"--the Greeks and their British allies-- conquest is rewritten as love." (117) When we recall that Perceforest was composed for the count of Hainault, who supported the Anglo-Norman crown, one can only agree with Huot, who sees in this idealized vision of Greek imperialism a glorification of the imperialist ambitions of the Plantagenets. Each of the three sections that comprise "Heteronormative Sexuality" is replete with rich and fecund ideas that are difficult to summarize here. What Huot writes about the hidden face of so-called "courtly love" in the Perceforest is especially interesting. As a source of heroic feats and of refinement in this romance, courtly love often leads to marriage which, in turn, ensures to the conquerors both the perpetuation of a noble lineage and a greater control of the land's natural resources. The idea is not new, as Huot herself notes, but in this instance it has the advantage of being borne out by fascinating examples drawn from Perceforest which make it all the more convincing.

The third and last part of the book is entitled "Greeks, Trojans and the Construction of British History," and it is the shortest of the three. It examines how the Greek conquerors of the Perceforest both deny and assimilate the culture of its natives. Huot achieves this by drawing on the notion of "cross-cultural hybridity" (162) as defined by Homi Bhabha. Michel de Certeau's idea that history is a hybrid construction oscillating between memory and oblivion is the second ground for her analysis. As is the case in most colonial cultures, history in the Perceforest has two faces. While the conquerors present "a "comforting vision of a glorious past" (196) which expunges or minimalizes their violence, the natives commemorate this inaugural violence as a form of resistance. If the "comforting" vision of history prevails in this romance, the other vision, which is founded on a refusal to forget, does not cease to haunt the Greek rulers and their English allies. In other words, the glorious past that the conquerors invent for themselves in order to justify their colonial enterprise never succeeds in completely legitimating it. We should underscore the interest of the pages where Huot establishes the links between this aspect of Perceforest and various other foundational myths promulgated by the kings of England.

Written in clear prose by someone who has admirable control of her material, Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest: Cultural Identities and Hybridities is an important book. That Huot has been able to uncover a meaning in this very long romance-which very few medievalists have even read entirely-merits in itself our admiration. But her subtle analysis accomplishes far more. She enables us on the one hand to recognize Perceforest as a masterpiece of medieval literature, and on the other, she convinces us of the major role played by medieval culture in the formation of colonialist discourse.