There can be few scholars working primarily in Middle English as widely read as Douglas Gray and even fewer who wear their learning so lightly. No one will be surprised to find him writing confidently about the Anglo-Saxon foundations of Middle English or about its Renaissance legacy (he has after all written authoritatively on both Skelton and Spenser), but his latest book, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval Popular Literature, ranges effortlessly across European and non-European literatures (Don Quixote rubs shoulders with Kalila and Dimnah) and from the earliest times down to nineteenth century (the Mahabharata keeps company with the Pirates of Penzance). From a European perspective its inclusion of much Medieval Latin material is particularly gratifying, as, from an insular point of view, is its generous use of the rich literary resources of lowland Scotland. Not the least of its charms is its snapping up of unconsidered trifles from the neglected byways of English literature; where else might one hope to discover the prescient sixteenth-century observation that football contains "nothinge but beastly furie and extreame violence," or the answer to the riddle, "What animal has its tail between its eyes" ("It is a catte whan she lycketh her arse")?
Gray's term "simple forms" is a calque on the German Einfache Formen, the title of an important book written in 1930 by the Dutch/German scholar André Jolles. (Since the first English translation of this seminal structuralist work is not to appear until 2017, Gray provides us with yet another instance of a medievalist stealing a march on the monolingual Anglophone theorist). Jolles's simple forms were nine in number (Legende, Sage, Mythe, Rätsel, Spruch, Kasus, Memorabile, Märchen, Witz). This is already a somewhat heterogeneous list (one might wonder for instance what single principle can comprehend both myths and jokes), but Gray does not allow himself to be overly constrained by it. Indeed, he expands it considerably, including heroic lays, popular romances, ballads, even folk drama, at one end of the spectrum, and flytings, prophesies, and charms at the other. What binds all these forms together is their participation in the category of oral literature (a term whose oxymoronic character was pointed out long ago by Walter Ong, but which seems unavoidable). Gray's is far from being a bloodless structuralist analysis however, for he draws us a vivid picture, not only of the ocean of oral stories in which these forms float like icebergs, revealing only a small proportion of the sunken mass that supports them, but also of the rich diversity of the folk life upon which they draw. His second chapter, modestly titled "Notes on Popular Culture," offers the best introduction to this elusive topic from a medieval perspective that I know of, and Gray comes as close to recreating for us the performative life of a predominantly oral community as any literate commentator coming so late to the feast is likely to be able to do.
The driving force of Gray's Simple Forms is his exploration of the ways these Einfache Formen become "the building blocks of learned and sophisticated literature" (2). Perhaps the most brilliant illustration of this approach is his extended reading of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale. Other critics have pointed to the folktale basis of the Griselda story, but none has shown Chaucer struggling with Walter's 'marvellous desire' to test his wife, with Griselda's perilous position as 'isolated heroine,' or with the 'pitous joye' of the final disenchantment, to better effect. It is difficult to disagree with his conclusion that "the underlying folktale pattern of Chaucer's story not only brought him problems and tensions but also inspired his creativity" (126). A similar exposition of the literary transformation of a simple form (in this case the animal fable) is provided by Gray's rich reading of Henryson's The Fox, The Wolf, and the Cadger. Here again, "the rough and popular core" of the fable (the wolf's disastrous attempt to replicate the fox's original cunning trick) is shown to have been transmuted into "polished narrative art" (161).
Some chapters, such as the one on Ballads, draw our attention to forms that are often neglected, while others, such as that on Popular Romances, remind us of the folkloric roots of forms we often take for granted (Gray's reading of Sir Orfeo here is particularly stimulating). For me, however, Simple Forms is at its most suggestive when it shows how even the simplest of these simple forms can inform complex narrative structures. In particular, the two chapters discussing the closely linked forms of the Proverb and the Riddle bristle with interpretive possibilities. Ironically, neither contains an extended explication de texte (though there are brief discussions of the way riddles underpin The Dream of the Rood and of "what is almost in effect a proverb contest" in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Prologue). However, where many readers might see proverbs as mere rhetorical embellishment--for instance, furnishing (with varying degrees of irony) the morals that often draw medieval tales to their conclusion--, Gray finds in them the seeds of narrative growth, neatly characterizing them as "fables in miniature" (170). Gray suggests, for example, that proverbs, far from being merely decorative, "often seem to embody major controlling ideas in Canterbury Tales" (177). So, too, with riddles. Gray sees what he calls "the enigmatic urge" (188) lying at the heart of allegory (an idea he finds in Puttenham), and expressing itself in forms as diverse as the religious lyric (with its penchant for mystical paradox) and the popular romance (with its 'hard questions,' such as "What do women most desire?").
Such critical aperçus are to be found scattered throughout Simple Forms--for instance, on the fundamental power of prophesy to "expand and create a sense of community" (40)--and, for me at least, open up fresh avenues of enquiry wherever they occur. For example, in light of the riddle that ends the first part of The Knight's Tale ("Who hath the worse, Arcite or Palamoun?"), or the Olympian impasse that concludes its third part, I found myself wondering how far Gray's "enigmatic urge" provided one of the "controlling ideas" for the first of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Surely no greater compliment can be paid to any critical work than to show that it stimulates us to ask new questions and opens up new avenues of research.