The Medieval Review 14.08.05

Mueller, Alex. Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. Pp. 253. $69.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8142-1221-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Richard J. Moll
University of Western Ontario

Alex Mueller's Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance begins by asking the question which, in one form or another, has come to dominate discussions of both the medieval story of Troy and alliterative romance: "how do these writers indulge and subvert English fantasies of sovereignty through vernacular translations of classical history?" (14). The book thus presents itself as the inheritor of Patricia Ingham's Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), Sylvia Federico's New Troy: Fantasies of Empire (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), Randy Schiff's Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (The Ohio State University Press, 2011) and many other recent article-length studies, such as those found in Powell and Shepard's collection, Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (University of Toronto Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004). Mueller's response to his own question is multi-faceted: "the answers to these questions supplement and interrogate current understandings of Trojan historiography in England, the genre of romance as cultural fantasy, the social function of literature, the relationship between metropolitan and provincial poetics, the unity of alliterative poetry, and the theory of the 'alliterative revival'" (14). I would posit that this sentence is the thesis of the book, and it highlights its many problems. The book is certainly about Trojan historiography, but there is little about the genre of romance (although much about individual romances), very little about the social context of the poems under consideration (some vague statements about a militaristic Cheshire being the exception), nothing about the distinction between urban and provincial poetry (despite the title of the book), and, apart from many references to Schiff's arguments, no sustained discussion of alliterative poetics either as a genre or as a revival.

Chapter 1 outlines the development of Trojan historiography in England and argues for the centrality of Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae (as opposed to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia). The rest of the book's chapters are organized around individual texts. Chapter 2 explores how Guido's ambivalent attitude toward militaristic empire was adapted in the alliterative Destruction of Troy. Chapter 3 argues that the alliterative Siege of Jerusalem actually presents a sympathetic portrait of suffering Jews to question the legitimacy of empire. Chapter 4 explores heraldry in the alliterative Morte Arthure to argue that the poem "interrogates the nature of royal authority" (126). Chapter 5 focuses on the geography of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to suggest that the poem problematizes Arthur's imperial ambitions. And, finally, the conclusion introduces John Trevisa and Geoffrey Chaucer to place alliterative poets within a context of other readers of Guido's skeptical historiography.

As this summary indicates, Mueller posits a remarkable uniformity of opinion among alliterative poets as they react to "the alliterative romanciers' favourite book, Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae" (171). Indeed, even as Mueller quotes Randy Schiff and others to dismiss the idea of unity among alliterative poems (5-6, 9, 56, 68, etc.), he also argues that a shared poetic form coincides with a shared, clerical political point of view, even going so far as to cite George Neilson's argument that Huchown wrote both the Siege of Jerusalem and the alliterative Morte (135; I should note that Mueller rightly dismisses this argument on p. 43). Even the occasional alliterative passage in John Trevisa's corpus "highlights his interest in England's native verse" (211) and leads Mueller to muse on Trevisa's interest in King Alfred and to suggest that the examples of alliterative prose may be a "nod to the Alfredian tradition in Wessex" (212). The proposed shared political point of view, however, never comes into clear focus: the poems interrogate, question, belie, problematize, or present an ambivalent and ambiguous attitude toward empire, militarism, sovereignty or rule, but precisely what these skeptical clerical poets believe is never clearly articulated.

This stance of ambiguous uniformity pervades the book and is, I believe, necessitated by the many vague and troubling readings of the texts throughout the study. These are too numerous to discuss fully here, so I will focus on two: the translation of Guido's skepticism into the alliterative verse of the Destruction of Troy and the role of heraldry in the alliterative Morte Arthure. To begin with the Destruction: chapter 2 opens with the "provocative" fact that the unique witness of the Destruction of Troy (Glasgow, Hunterian MS V.2.8) has an obvious lacuna between books one and two. Mueller claims that this "lacuna is of great significance" because it would have contained the portion of the text in which Guido discusses the Trojan ancestry of the English (42). He also states that, while we should not "uncritically support a reading of Destruction based on what has not survived," still, "we must consider why [the poet] might have excised this attractive historical content" (47). There's no indication of what conclusions might be drawn from such a consideration, and the obvious solution, that a folio or two were missed when the manuscript was copied (either through carelessness or physical loss), is dismissed in a footnote (43 n. 5). The main point of this chapter is that the Destruction pays "careful attention to death and resurrection" (68) to establish the "metonymy of the body as a representation of the city" (71). Mueller focuses on the bizarre machine, described in both Guido and the Destruction, which the Trojans built to keep Hector's corpse from decomposing, but the problems with this image are twofold: first, Hector does indeed suffer death, but he does not undergo a "resurrection" (the body remains a dead body, even if a well preserved one); and second, nowhere in the text (at least not anywhere mentioned by Mueller) is the metonymic relationship between Hector's body and the city of Troy established. Of course, the lengthy descriptions of the preservation of Hector's body may be seen to create such an association through apposition, but the text never makes that association explicit. As a result, Mueller must rely on rhetorical sleight of hand to make his point. For example, after Priam looks on the first fall of Troy and sees "the buyldynges brent & beton to ground," he weeps. To explain this scene Mueller spends a paragraph describing the many tears shed by Trojan mourners, concluding with Paris who weeps for his brothers during the second fall of Troy. This occurs more than 9000 lines after Priam had wept for the first city, and nowhere during Paris's weeping are the bodies of his brothers mentioned (the text actually states that the Trojans had "dole and doute" because they lacked the "lede" [leadership], "wit" and "truthe" of the heroes [10652-10656]), nor does Paris articulate a wish for their revivification. Even so, Mueller then conflates these two scenes of weeping, and concludes "that we should understand Priam's object of weeping to be not only an incinerated city, but also a dismembered body that he desperately hopes to revive" (74). On the next page we are told that when the first Troy was rebuilt the workers who would reconstruct the city "[s]erchit vp the soile there the Citie was". Mueller glosses the phrase "serchit vp the soile" as "digging and searching, two actions that go hand in hand in exhumation," and in the next sentence this ordinary phrase is no longer "hand in hand" with exhumation, but has become "grave digging" (75), thus rhetorically linking the rebuilding of the city with the revivification of dead bodies. Finally, on the next page, Mueller does produce a passage which makes a legitimate connection between a city and a body as the narrator states that he saw "nouam...Troiam, que vidue languida more fuit" [New Troy, who was weak in the habit of a widow] (76), but the Troy here is New Troy (i.e. London), not the ancient city, and this passage is from John Gower's Vox clamantis, not the poem under consideration. Mueller's forced readings are especially problematic because the supposed metonymic relationship between bodies and cities is central to his understanding of "the Guido-tradition." It will be used repeatedly throughout the book to establish relationships among his texts, but he simply has not demonstrated its existence, let alone its importance, in either Guido's Historia or the alliterative Destruction.

My second example is from Chapter 4, "Heraldry," which takes the alliterative Morte Arthure as its topic. Here, according to Mueller, the interrogation of empire is carried out through the poet's "heraldic agenda" (135). Mueller claims that the poem confuses heraldic devices, since in his first dream Arthur is represented by a dragon, while later in the poem the Romans carry a golden dragon as a battle standard. Mueller admits that the association between Arthur and the dragon is natural, since "it signifies the legacy inherited from his father, Uther Pendragon, who represents the golden dragon in the Galfridian sources" (133). These confusions, according to Mueller, "den[y] clear distinctions between conquerors and victims" and suggest the indiscriminate violence of any sovereignty (147). But such a reading depends on a late-fourteenth century audience that is unable to make the subtle distinctions that both heraldry and the texts at hand demand. Firstly, Geoffrey does not say that Uther "represents the golden dragon"; Uther constructs two golden dragons as battle standards after he witnesses a dragon-shaped comet and is thus represented by a golden dragon (battle standards, it should be noted, need not be heraldic). Geoffrey's Arthur, as Mueller points out, also uses a golden dragon as a battle standard (134), but in the fourteenth century Arthur is represented in heraldry by the red dragon (which figures in Geoffrey's account of Merlin's prophecies of the two warring dragons; the red dragon is one of several heraldic charges used by Arthur). Secondly, and more importantly, such distinctions are moot, since the alliterative Morte states, in a passage not quoted by Mueller, that the dragon of Arthur's dream had a head and neck "Oundyde of azure," shoulders "in clene syluere" and a body and wings "of wondyrfulle hewes" (765-768). If this is indeed a heraldic description (and the phrase "Oundyde of azure" (i.e. with wavy blue bands) certainly suggests that is), there is no way to mistake this blue, silver, and multi-coloured heraldic dragon for the golden dragon used as a Roman battle standard. Contemporary heraldic treatises, such as Johannes de Bado Aureo's Tractatus de armis (ca. 1394/5), are clear that colour is as significant a distinguishing characteristic as the charge itself and any courtly writer or reader would know that. Mueller, however, does not seem to recognize basic heraldic practice. In the same way, he is surprised that Arthur's heralds are asked to prepare the bodies of the dead after a battle: "By transforming heralds into undertakers," he claims, "the badges and banners become visual reminders of the deaths that accompany all heraldic assertions, from battle standards to coats of arms" (128). But this scene is in no way unusual, as the earliest heraldic ordinances outline the rights of heralds to participate in the funerals of armigerous men. Mueller actually cites one of the standard works on the subject (the first edition of A.R. Wagner's Heralds and Heraldry, cited on 127), but the citation seems to have been merely copied from D. Vance Smith's Arts of Possession. (Mueller writes "I am influenced by D. Vance Smith's reading of this scene" and his citation repeats Smith's note 24; indeed, a more complete account of heraldic attendance at funerals could be found in Wagner's Heralds of England [London, 1967, pp. 106-119].) In a similar vein, Mueller turns to the account of Gawain's death and quotes the description of his arms, which are "al blody beronen," to argue that "[t]his heraldic signification of death renders such devices indecipherable to their witnesses – they no longer serve as reliable symbols of noble lineage" (128). This interpretation, however, ignores the scene, some 220 lines earlier, where Kyng Ffroderike asks Mordred if he knew the recently-slain Gawain: "Qwat gome was he, this with the gaye armes, / With this gryffoune of golde, that es one growffe fallyne?" (3868-3869). Far from obscuring Gawain or his achievements, his arms are the only means available to Ffroderike to identify his adversary. Mordred answers by delivering an encomium to his dead brother in one of the most striking speeches in the poem: "He was makles one molde, mane, be my trowhe... / Mane hardieste of hande, happyeste in armes" (3875-8). Far from obscuring his identity or the nobility of his accomplishments, Gawain's arms advertise his chivalric achievements and it was for exactly this reason that heralds participated in the funeral arrangements of great men. Again, Mueller's loose interpretation of heraldic practice bleeds into later chapters as he attempts to create unity among his texts. He rightly claims, for example, that at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight "the Arthurian court recognizes the girdle as a heraldic symbol of renown," but then adds the meaningless and unsupported addendum that this is "much in the style of a Trojan coat of arms" (201).

Mueller has tackled a difficult corpus of texts engaged with fourteenth-century Trojan historiography, but by ignoring the many Troy narratives available (in Ovid, the much revised Ovide Moralisé, Virgil, the Ilias Latina, Dares and Dictys and others) and focusing on a single source text, Guido's Historia, Mueller simplifies a very complex historiographical situation. The alliterative poets discussed in Translating Troy do not emerge as active participants in a vibrant literary tradition; rather, the uniformity of their clerical voices makes them seem shackled and lifeless. Certainly, the corpus of Middle English alliterative texts does not unquestioningly embrace all imperial ambitions, but in order to argue for something more than an ill-defined ambiguity toward fantasies of empire, the poems, their sources and their contexts need more precise and careful attention.

Copyright (c) 2014 Richard J. Moll

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