12.09.15, Cartlidge, ed., Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance

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Joseph Taylor

The Medieval Review 12.09.15

Cartlidge, Neil. Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance. Studies in Medieval Romance. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. ix, 247. ISBN: 978-1-84384-304-7.

Reviewed by:
Joseph Taylor
University of Alabama, Huntsville

Emerging from the 8th Biennial Conference on Medieval Romance in Durham in 2002, the essays in Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance successfully flesh out many of the overlooked tensions in romance texts between heroic and anti-heroic figures. Specifically, the volume calls into question some basic assumptions readers have made about romance heroes/villains who do not follow the conventions of this binary. The authors, in so doing, illustrate rich complexities in medieval romance frequently ignored by critics who see the genre as "ideologically and psychologically naive" (1). As editor Neil Cartlidge explains in his brief "Introduction," neither of the collection's main terms were part of the medieval lexicon, though they are essential to the critical discourse of modern readers of medieval romance. Heroism connotes chivalry, gentleness, and masculinity, and, consequently, aristocracy. Anti-heroes, of course, fail to live up to the hero's expectations, but, Cartlidge contends, "The concept is useful because it helps to explain the different ways in which medieval narratives invite admiration of figures who are obviously either flawed, failed, sinister, or destructive" (2).

The collection's essays center on characters who appear in several romances (Merlin, Gawain), those in single--yet significant--texts (Gamelyn, Ralph the Collier) and, most interesting, character-types (the Crusader, the Saracen, the Devil's progeny). For Penny Eley, the poet of the twelfth-century Old French Roman d'Eneas rejects Virgil's rendering of the Rutulian, Turnus, as a hero-if-obstacle to the eponymous Trojan's destiny. Stripped of portents and divine intervention and devoid of the patriotism that complicate Virgil's rendering of a noble victim, the Eneas' Turnus is a traitorous, self-serving prince who markedly contrasts the titular hero, a necessary shift for this "mirror for princes" text. David Ashurst takes on competing views of Alexander, as hero and anti-hero from the Old English Orosius to the anonymous Wars of Alexander. While Orosius channels accounts of Alexander's greed for territory into his own portrait of a tyrant, Walter of Chatillon's Latin Alexandreis displays the kind of reverential awe that counters Alexander's bloodlust and quest for world domination. Ashurst, further, illustrates this patterning--highlighting the good while nodding to the bad and vice versa--in Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate, among other authors to the end of the Middle Ages. The paradox of Alexander, in Ashurst's reading, "comes down to the problem of...being an exemplary pagan here in the framework of Christian romance" (41). Laura Ashe considers Harold Godwinson's problematic presence in numerous post-Conquest texts as either a perfidious encroacher upon the crown or a scapegoat for divine punishment visited on the English people through the Norman Invasion. The South English Legendary mourns Harold as king but ultimately displaces him in memory with Edward the Confessor, a more favorable and natural predecessor to the Norman kings. Gerald of Wales' Description of Wales finds Harold's body displaced to the border zone of Chester while three Norse sagas heighten his Danish ancestry. The pseudo hagiography Vita Haroldi transforms Harold into a "chosen spiritual exile" (78), a revelation that weds Harold to the local rather than the national and absents him from his previous life at the threshold of Anglo-Norman identity.

Three essays address the Arthurian characters Mordred, Merlin and Gawain respectively. As Judith Weiss shows, Mordred is everything from a valorous retainer in early Welsh narratives to a legitimate heir in late-medieval Scottish Chronicles. Geoffrey of Monmouth cements Mordred's villainy early in his textual life, depicting the knight as treacherous with both crown and queen, and Wace, further, emphasizes Mordred's incest with his aunt. His villainy is softened in, for example, the Suite du Merlin, where prophecies of a patricidal child leads Arthur to a Herod-like slaughter of the innocents, and fifteenth-century texts such as the Alliterative Morte show Mordred to be a better ruler than the excessively prideful King. Though his ultimate fate is as archetype for a bevy of traitors and villains, his vexed birth and the precarious situations in which he finds himself make complete condemnation of Mordred difficult for many romance writers of the Middle Ages. In this respect, for Weiss, he is "the very personification of an anti-hero" (98). Gareth Griffith tackles arguably the most difficult figure of Arthurian romance, Merlin, focusing primarily on Geoffrey's Historia and Robert de Boron's Merlin, which establish Merlin's prevailing characterization as vates (prophet). Geoffrey, further, injects into the legend Merlin's diabolic origins, and Merlin, consequently, becomes a bridge between the political and the supernatural. Going forward, poets attribute numerous new characteristics to Merlin, illustrating how, as Griffith explains, "Merlin's character is always flexible, always subject to the interpretive pressure placed upon it by the writer and audience" (104). Kate McClune uses Malory's dark rendition of Gawain as an endpoint to a long and complicated textual life over the course of the Middle Ages. Playfully alluding to repeated references to Gawain's reputation in medieval literature, McClune's insightfully clear examination asks how much "extra-literary fame...plays a role in developing his literary appearances" (118). Wace and Lajman speak to Gawain's courage but also to the violence that Malory exploits in his much later version of the knight. The Scots Gawain romances Lancelot of the Laik and Golagros put him forward as an alternative to Arthur, while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight exhibits a brooding and self-conscious youth contemplating his own morality and his place in the chivalric community of the Round Table. Like many figures in this volume, Gawain's ever-changing character becomes a trope in itself--the "Gawain-effect" (129)--on which authors come to rely over the course of the Middle Ages.

Essays also concern heroes and anti-heroes from popular romance. Nancy Mason Bradbury extracts Gamelyn from the limiting context of chivalric violence in which it is often read, arguing that the titular character constitutes not an anti-hero but a "genuine hero of a vehemently anti-clerical, mildly anti-chivalric, and deeply anti- authoritarian popular tale" (130). Ad Putter explains how The Tale of Ralph the Collier encodes both the "king-meets-commoner" motif of "King in Disguise" popular tales, as well as the "knight-meets- saracen" exchange we come to expect, particularly, in Charlemagne romances. In his attention to household manners and given his knightly convention, the churl Ralph out-manners the King at dinner and out- knights Roland in the field before unwittingly confronting a saracen, whom he later converts. As Putter concludes, "Our hero is therefore neither peasant nor knight but an irresistible blend of both" (158). Analyzing René of Anjou's French work, the Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, Stephanie Viereck Gibbs Kamath sees combat in the poem not spurred by erotic devotion but constitutive of love itself. The hero is thus "universally subject to love" which proves, arguably, anti- heroic. Kamath, here, offers one of the volumes few extended theorizations of the hero/anti-hero binary. She argues, "If heroism is defined as conquest by love, then the forces that work against heroism are those that could enable resistance to passion" (167). As "magnificent losers," René and his poetic avatar suggest that "the loss of self-mastery to love is the essential component of heroic identity" while each "questions whether it is rational, prudent, or enjoyable to be a hero on such terms" (168).

In a rewarding turn, the collection's final essays open up the previous discourse on particular characters with an equally rich discussion of character types. Robert Allen Rouse reads later medieval romances as "recovery literature" meditating on the real crusader loss of the city of Acre in 1291. These post-1291 texts "mediate both the continued desire for crusade and the impact of the loss of Acre and the legacy of failure that this event embodied" (174). Looking at Guy of Warwick and Sir Gowther specifically, Rouse holds that these texts "call for chivalric violence to be redirected outside of Christendom," an imperative that both points to the just violence of the Crusades and to the internal strife between Christian kingdoms often blamed for crusader losses. In one of the volume's most compelling essays, Siobhain Bly Calkin examines the manner in which Saracen knights "cast a critical light on the Christian heroes they encounter" (185). In the Charlemagne romances of Otuel, the saracen knight who converts to Christianity openly criticizes Roland and his companions for their battle-lust and pride, while in Firumbras, the eponymous convert restores Charlemagne's own faith and courage in a moment of despair. Non-converts prove as insightful, if not more. In Guy of Warwick, Triamour upholds his promises to release Christian prisoners and displays, along with the saracen Sultan of the same episode, a devotion to his son, which the romance juxtaposes against Guy's abandonment of how own wife and child. Calkin concludes that these non-converts, while participating in the glorification of the Christian hero, "draw the audience's attention to the social costs and potential destructiveness of that hero's 'exemplary' behavior" (200). James Wade argues that the manuscript contexts of romances-- how, for instance, a romance might be situated amongst other exempla and morally focused tales within a miscellany--affected how audiences encountered such problematic characters as ungallant knights and how these contexts "[calibrated] their understanding of the moral implications of particular romance heroes" (203). Reading more ethically stable figures in non-romances alongside the texts in question might expose, for readers, "the tensions between the chivalric ideal and the complexities of lived experience" (218). In the volume's final essay, Neil Cartlidge reads romance's diabolic offspring in light of what he rightly terms "[t]he ultimate anti-type in medieval culture" (219): the Antichrist. Different from many of the characters examined in his collection, Cartlidge's Antichrist hides no motives or morals, informing the supernatural births of various romance personae. Merlin, Gowther, and Robert le Diable, among others, call to mind significant questions of identity for a medieval audience: is sin "original"?; what is human/divine?; what is the place of miracle? Ultimately, the salvation of devils' sons like Robert and Gowther reassure audiences that there is hope for us all.

Echoing a criticism Myra Seaman offered in her review of Medieval Romance. Medieval Contexts, a previous collection in this same book series, Heroes and Anti-Heroes maintains a certain methodological conservatism that, while not detracting from the sheer usefulness of the volume, nevertheless offers little in the way of new reading practice. At the same time, one must ask whether this collection needs to offer new theoretical and/or wildly speculative readings of the notable players that are its focus. The volume must inevitably, if constantly, offer historical contextualizations of audience and text as it reads characters and character-types, and it must perform much source study to trace the growth or inhibition of growth of characters over their medieval textual lives. Indeed, these very discussions contribute to the essays' readability, to the informative bibliographic sweeps of primary materials they examine and to their pedagogic intimations. More problematic, however, the term "anti-hero" is rarely theorized or specifically defined, certainly not explicitly so, apart from Cartlidge's brief discussion in the "Introduction" and in Kamath's and Lamont's essays mentioned either above or below. Implicit discussions abound as one reads through the volume and, while that's partly the point--the volume looks specifically to the ways by which characters muddy the binary hero/anti-hero--some of the essays might have benefitted by foregrounding these terms and working through their nuances.

Margaret Lamont's contribution, then, proves exemplary to some of the points made, here, about the collection's broader aims. Looking specifically at Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia and Wace's Brut, Lamont observes that the Saxon invader Hengist is neither hero nor villain, but a liminal figure capable of rehabilitation from invader to ancestor for Englishmen in the Middle Ages. Lamont appropriates the Mexican term mestisaje, to describe the racial hybridity figured in literary representations of Hengist, arguing that "[a] feeling of connection to both the oppressor and the oppressed...characterizes...post-Conquest medieval English identity" (53-54). Lamont's employment of mestisaje towards her conclusion allows her to make a broader point about the pervasiveness of racial hybridity in human history. As she continues, Lamont makes welcomed claims about how such trans-temporal cultural phenomenon offers us opportunities as teachers of medieval literature to forge for our students' connections with these seemingly ancient texts in foreign tongues. Most important, for the volume, Lamont clarifies that the anti-hero "shaped understandings of what it meant to be English, which was to be related to both the conquered and the conquerors of historical struggles both ancient and more recent" (57). Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance is a rich study of romance's characterological genealogies, the very fabric with which the genre is woven. Its broad readings and sheer coverage make it a very useful text, one for critics and pedagogues to keep handy. For this reason, the collection, no doubt, will prove useful to scholars and students alike as a reference point from which to begin or to further critical analyses of medieval romance and its players.

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Author Biography

Joseph Taylor

University of Alabama, Huntsville