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Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance

Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance

Volume: 16
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Heroes and Anti-Heroes in Medieval Romance
    Book Description:

    Medieval romances so insistently celebrate the triumphs of heroes and the discomfiture of villains that they discourage recognition of just how morally ambiguous, antisocial or even downright sinister their protagonists can be, and, correspondingly, of just how admirable or impressive their defeated opponents often are. This tension between the heroic and the antiheroic makes a major contribution to the dramatic complexity of medieval romance, but it is not an aspect of the genre that has been frequently discussed up. Focusing on fourteen distinct characters and character-types in medieval narrative, this book illustrates the range of different ways in which the imaginative power and appeal of romance-texts often depends on contradictions implicit in the very ideal of heroism. Dr Neil Cartlidge is Lecturer in English at the University of Durham. Contributors: Neil Cartlidge, Penny Eley, David Ashurst, Meg Lamont, Laura Ashe, Judith Weiss, Gareth Griffith, Kate McClune, Nancy Mason Bradbury, Ad Putter, Robert Rouse, Siobhain Bly Calkin, James Wade, Stephanie Vierick Gibbs Kamath

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-870-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)
    Neil Cartlidge

    Medieval romances so insistently celebrate the triumphs of heroes and the discomfiture of villains that they discourage recognition of just how morally ambiguous, antisocial or even downright sinister their protagonists can be, and, correspondingly, of just how admirable or impressive their defeated opponents often are. This tension between the heroic and the anti-heroic in romance-texts contributes considerably to the complexity of the reading experience that they generate, but it is not an aspect of the genre that has been much discussed up to now. Part of the reason for this lies in the way that medieval romances still tend to...

  6. Part I: Individual Characters

    • 1 Turnus
      (pp. 9-26)
      Penny Eley

      On the face of it, Turnus should have been a character that a mid-twelfth-century audience could have identified with and admired. Virgil’s ‘ingens Turnus’ (‘mighty Turnus’, XII, 927)¹ stands poles apart from the villains of the first phase of Old French literature, who are generally constituted as such by their status as traitors (Ganelon in the Chanson de Roland, Modret in Wace’s Brut, Hoel in Ille et Galeron, numerous antagonists of the Normans in Benoît’s Chronique de ducs de Normandie), cowards (Tedbalt and Esturmi in the Chanson de Guillaume), perjurers (Etioclés in the Roman de Thèbes), or outsiders whose beliefs...

    • 2 Alexander the Great
      (pp. 27-42)
      David Ashurst

      Thus Walter of Châtillon, writing in the period 1171–81, upbraids Alexander the Great in what proved to be one of the most successful long Latin poems composed in the Middle Ages, the Alexandreis.³ At this point in the account of his career, Alexander has returned to Babylon after conquering Asia and is poised to begin a new campaign in the west, after which, as he has told us earlier in the poem (in IX.563–70), he intends to seek the other world of the Antipodes because one world alone is too small for him. Walter’s censure runs on for...

    • 3 Hengist
      (pp. 43-58)
      Margaret Lamont

      Hengist enters medieval literature as one of its great villains in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius, as leader of a people ‘amicialiter locuti, in mente interim vulpicino more agebant’ (‘friendly in their words, but wolfish in heart and deed’).¹ In all versions of his story, he arrives with his brother Horsa and their men on the shores of Britain (sometimes by invitation and sometimes not) and serves as mercenary for the British king Vortigern against his northern enemies. He becomes so indispensable to the unpopular Vortigern that he acquires lands in Britain, after which he steadily widens the...

    • 4 Harold Godwineson
      (pp. 59-80)
      Laura Ashe

      The reputation of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England has perhaps never been higher than it was some eight centuries after his death, when Edward Freeman produced his magisterial work on the Norman Conquest. For him, Harold was an essential pillar in the meaningful structure of English history, as he elaborated when recounting the passage of Edward I’s body through Waltham on its way to Westminster in 1307; for Waltham was supposedly the site of Harold’s burial:¹

      But for a while the two heroes lay side by side – the last and the first of English Kings, between whom none...

    • 5 Mordred
      (pp. 81-98)
      Judith Weiss

      Mordred is one of literature’s greatest traitors.¹ Moreover, his treachery is compounded by sexual sins that are not its necessary or usual corollaries: adultery and incest. However, the first text in which he appears, the Welsh Annal for the year 537 (which may itself be no older than middle of the tenth century), refers to ‘the battle of Camlann in which Arthur and Mordred fell’ (‘Gueith Camlann in qua Arthur et Medrait corruerunt’) only in a way that seems to be entirely neutral.² It is not obvious that he was on the opposite side to Arthur at the sixth-century battle;...

    • 6 Merlin
      (pp. 99-114)
      Gareth Griffith

      For modern audiences, Merlin has had an enduring appeal as the wizard at the court of King Arthur. In the Middle Ages, his fame was if anything even greater, but his supporting role alongside Arthur was only one part of it, and neither the first nor necessarily the most important part at that. Merlin was a figure of fascination in his own right, someone to whom medieval writers returned for a variety of reasons, over centuries of retelling and reinterpretation. This process might be likened to a great river, rising from several springs, and ultimately flowing out in many different...

    • 7 Gawain
      (pp. 115-128)
      Kate McClune

      The killing of Lamorak de Galys ‘by treson’ (2:716) is a defining moment in Sir Thomas Malory’s portrayal of the perpetrators of the slaying, Sir Gawain of Orkney and his brothers Aggravayne, Gaheris, and Mordred.¹ The murder (as it is repeatedly defined by Malory’s other knights, see 2:688, 691, 698–99) takes place ‘off-screen’, and its description is twice relayed to the audience in varying detail. First, Palomides informs Lamorak’s brother, Percival de Galys, that the Orkney brothers ‘slewe hym [Lamorak] felounsly’ (2:688), and subsequently he describes to Tristram, Dinadan, and Gareth, the fifth Orkney brother, the full particulars of...

    • 8 Gamelyn
      (pp. 129-144)
      Nancy Mason Bradbury

      Gamelyn finds a place among this volume’s potential anti-heroes because his behaviour has so often struck readers as gratuitously violent. In his influential study Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Richard W. Kaeuper cites The Tale of Gamelyn to illustrate the propensity of lay elites to claim the right to violence as a ‘defining privilege… in any matter touching their prickly sense of honour’. He writes that Gamelyn recovers ‘right and honour by violently overwhelming the meeting of a corrupt royal court, has hanged the sheriff and jurors, and will shortly hang the king’s justice, after cleaving his cheekbone and...

    • 9 Ralph the Collier
      (pp. 145-158)
      Ad Putter

      The Tale of Ralph the Collier has come down to us in a single copy, a book printed by Robert Lekpreuik at St Andrews in 1572.¹ Its story runs as follows. One day, as King Charles (i.e. Charlemagne) and his knights are on their way to Paris, they are surprised by a terrible storm, and Charles is separated from his companions. Fearing for his life, he is relieved to meet a collier (i.e. a charcoal burner) who does not recognize him as the king but who agrees to take him into his home. Charles is well looked after, but roughly...

    • 10 The Anti-heroic Heart
      (pp. 159-170)
      Stephanie Viereck Gibbs Kamath

      Triumphs achieved, tasks accomplished, challenges mastered: such are the conclusions expected for a hero’s quest. What kind of quest ends with the hero hospitalized after being clubbed down by a fat, rude, rebellious hunchback clad in worn-out rusty armour? And why would a medieval nobleman want to claim such a story as his own? These questions face the readers of a unique French work known as the Livre du Cuer d’Amours Espris (Book of the Love-smitten Heart), written by René, the duke of Anjou, during the last half of the fifteenth century. The Livre du Cuer is both a testament...

  7. Part II: Character-Types

    • 11 Crusaders
      (pp. 173-184)
      Robert Allen Rouse

      Sometime between March and November 1481, William Caxton printed Godfrey de Bouillon or the Siege and Conquest of Jerusalem. Published some 190 years after the fall of Acre and the destruction of the last crusader state in the Levant, this text highlights the enduring attraction of crusade narratives – and of the crusader heroes contained within them – for late-fifteenth-century English society.¹ As the first English translation of the First Crusade portions of William of Tyre’s Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, the production of the text has been interpreted as the product of Caxton’s canny awareness of the reading...

    • 12 Saracens
      (pp. 185-200)
      Siobhain Bly Calkin

      Although scholars often disagree about what defines a medieval romance, most agree that romances share a concern with heroic exemplarity, be it chivalric, religious, or moral. Yin Liu, for example, writes:

      these texts are about exemplarity. The protagonist […] is unfailingly described as the best knight of the world, or the most beautiful woman; the knight’s personal armor is always the best ever made, his horse the strongest, his battles the most spectacular; the protagonist’s hardships are inevitably the worst ever suffered.¹

      This emphasis on exemplarity, however, may blind readers to the complexity of the characterization of some romance protagonists...

    • 13 Ungallant Knights
      (pp. 201-218)
      James Wade

      Malory’s famous Round Table oath, which Arthur and his knights are said to have sworn every Pentecost, gives special emphasis to the appropriate treatment of women. As Neil Cartlidge has recently noted, one might assume that insistence on such behaviour would be self-evident, regardless of one’s aristocratic status. But as Cartlidge also notes, it is remarkable just how often romance heroes fail to live up to these basic standards.³ Eugène Vinaver calls this passage the ‘most complete and authentic record of Malory’s conception of chivalry’, and judging from its correspondences with the oath of the Order of the Bath, recorded...

    • 14 Sons of Devils
      (pp. 219-236)
      Neil Cartlidge

      The ultimate anti-type in medieval culture is, perhaps by definition, the figure of Antichrist, who owes his place in the Christian imagining of the events leading up to the end of the world precisely to the way in which he both impersonates and inverts Christ’s role as the principal hero of the Gospels; and I shall argue in this essay that he is also therefore implicitly the ultimate prototype for all the various figures in medieval romance whose being or ancestry is specifically represented as demonic. In the version of events imagined in the treatise De ortu et tempore Antichristi...

  8. Index
    (pp. 237-247)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-249)