The Awntyrs off Arthur: Introduction

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The Awntyrs off Arthur: Introduction

The Awntyrs off Arthur survives complete in four separate medieval manuscripts, none of which is based upon any of the other extant copies. Though its language and meter indisputably indicate northern composition - perhaps in Cumberland, whose seat is Carlisle - the four copies were made in different parts of England, including Yorkshire, the Midlands, and the London area. The number and pattern of surviving copies constitute material evidence that Awntyrs enjoyed a remarkable popularity outside (and also presumably within) the region in which it originated. Such popularity seems even more extraordinary since the poem did not begin as an oral tale, like Ragnelle, Carlisle, Turke, or the ballads. While its supernatural and chivalric storylines have affinities with popular tales, the complex rhyme scheme, narrative structure, written sources, allusions, and content demonstrate that Awntyrs was a distinctively literary effort. Awntyrs emerges from a transitional cultural context, in which a literate author has fully exploited oral stylistics and techniques.

Until fairly recently, editors and critics have regarded Awntyrs (meaning "adventures") as deficient in structural and thematic unity. The poem divides neatly - almost perfectly, according to Spearing's arguments - into two halves: the first part (lines 1-338) transforms a popular legend associated with Pope Gregory the Great - the Mass or Trental of Saint Gregory - into a chivalric episode. Awntyrs begins with the standard opening for a Gawain romance: as in Ragnelle, Carlisle, Avowyng, and other tales, Arthur and his companions go off to hunt in Inglewood Forest. The "adventure" of Awntyrs, its encounter with the alien, takes the form of a gothic fantasy: a ghost, described in screeching and grotesque detail, appears to Gawain and Guenevere at the Tarn Wathelene. The specter turns out to be the tormented soul of Guenevere's mother, who suffers now for the hidden sins of the flesh she committed on earth. The ghost laments the split within her own life, between a brilliant, splendid appearance and a fetid inner corruption, and then goes on to commend her own condition as a general warning to the entire court. She cautions Gawain and Guenevere, as representatives of the Round Table, that the conduct of knights and ladies must conform to Christian precept, and that the court must narrow the chasm between its excessive consumption and the desperate poverty that besets others in the community: material and spiritual concerns must coincide. Her own visitation typifies this link, in her ghostly intervention into the worldly life of the court, and, perhaps more strikingly, in her requesting Masses for her soul, making clear that those still in the flesh may affect the fate of those in the spirit world.

The apparition passes and the hunt ends, and the second part (lines 339-702) follows a scenario familiar in chivalric romance: as Arthur and the Round Table are seated at dinner in Rondoles Halle, a strange knight enters, accuses Arthur and Gawain of being in false possession of his lands, and demands an honorable combat. Sir Galeron of Galloway's challenge falls to Sir Gawain - a fitting outcome, given Gawain's popular title as the Lord of Galloway during the Middle Ages and after. The narrative lingers over the courage, skill, and ferocity of the fight; neither knight can gain early victory, and each does great damage to his opponent. Just as Gawain seems at the point of a lethal triumph, Galeron's lady and then Guenevere intervene, and Arthur halts the combat. Galeron submits to Gawain's prowess (and to Arthur's lordship), but the king composes the dispute by assigning other lands to Gawain, and having his nephew restore lands to Galeron. Galeron marries his lady, and becomes a knight of the Round Table. In the last stanza of Awntyrs, Guenevere arranges the Masses for her mother, and the poem ends with a verbal repetition of its opening line.

Though each part of Awntyrs presents a self-contained episode, they can be read not as autonomous, unconnected units, artificially or arbitrarily joined, but as narrative elements thematically linked by contrast and complementarity. Spearing has elegantly compared Awntyrs to a diptych - a conventional medieval form, in which two separate framed subjects are physically joined into a unity by a hinge; in such a doubled structure, meaning is produced not simply through a continuous harmony of parts, but through the collision this manifestly split structure sets up. A dialogic vision of this sort produces no rigidly moralized or single meaning, but "a potentiality for meaning," "a creative gesture in which the spectator or reader himself participates. Sparks leap across the gap between the two parts, and the on-looker's mind is set alight by them" (Spearing 1981, pp. 186-87).

The interactive reading strategy necessitated by this doubled structure locates the coherence of Awntyrs in the first part's unresolved conflicts of value, and in the way these conflicts then suffuse the battle of the second part. The physical grandeur of chivalric prowess and display appears projected through the filter of the spiritual imperatives stipulated by the ghost of Guenevere's mother. The first part exemplifies this allusive and contrastive dynamic even in its treatment of sources, for it recasts a popular tale of religious devotion (in which a monk-pope rescues his mother's soul from eternal torment) as a critique of the ideals and practice of the highest secular aristocracy. This dialogic process of meaning within the poem's structure and sources plays out at the thematic level as well: in both its halves, Awntyrs presents a view of social and spiritual interdependency that reflects common medieval notions of society as a unified political and sacred body. Awntyrs assumes, and gives vital expression to, a sense of corporate religiosity, in which the living and the dead are directly in touch with each other, so that those in heaven, on earth, and in hell (or limbo) act together in securing their mutual welfare. The care of the rich for the poor, of the living for the "very special dead" - and the converse, the powerful claims of the poor on the propertied, and of the ghost world on the flesh - define the contours of a cosmic community; within this framework matter and spirit are features of a single, continuous spectrum, and the individual's life can have final meaning only inside this corporate identity.

The ethos of chivalry participates in a similar corporate sensibility. The knight's honor exists only as it is publicly ratified by a community. First and foremost, of course, this consists in the medieval world of the elite caste of other knights, who can best judge chivalric worth and extend fellowship. But in principle it includes the entire Christian community (represented in this instance by the broad audience for chivalric romance), and Awntyrs throws a searching light on this larger set of connections. With astonishing bluntness, Gawain raises the question of chivalry as a sponsor of violence, rather than a protection against it:
"How shal we fare," quod the freke, "that fonden to fight,
And thus defoulen the folke on fele kinges londes,
And riches over reymes withouten eny right,
Wynnen worshipp in werre thorgh wightnesse of hondes?"
(lines 261-64)
The ghost answers with her allusive but frightening and peremptory prophesy of the downfall of the Round Table (lines 265-312). The shortcomings of golden-age chivalry should in consequence seem distressingly obvious for Gawain, let alone for a late medieval and decidedly post-Arthurian audience, and they are all the more thrilling and portentous for coming from beyond the grave. Yet this narrow vision of chivalry from hell applies to knighthood not the general community standards of late medieval christendom, but the austere strictures typical of Christianity's most other-worldly-strain. Moreover, the almost certainly clerical composer embeds these ghostly condemnations within a lavish expenditure of sound and phrase, so that even at the level of its most fundamental units Awntyrs insists upon the compound nature of its meaning.

One of the remarkable achievements of Awntyrs' doubled and dialogic style is its capacity to move from a consciousness of the contradictions within the ethos of knighthood and the fatal history of Arthur's court to a celebration of the magnificence of chivalric ideals and practices. The antagonism of Galeron and Gawain begins as a quarrel over proper title to lands, but from the outset it is clear that even chivalric "enemies" are bound by a framework of forms and values that transcend individual hostilities. The plot and themes of Awntyrs' second episode strongly resemble the subtle and striking twist that controls the second part of Gologras; the poem manages their combat so that the outcome increases the honor of each knight, and thereby still further exalts the worship of chivalry. Through the daunting prowess and courtesy of Gawain, and the magnanimity of Arthur and the Round Table, Galeron - the intruder of the second part - is accorded a proper identity within the fellowship at Carlisle. He reconciles with Gawain, marries his lady, and becomes one with the other knights. This romance ending has as both its cause and effect the harmonious affirmation of Arthur's lordship at the head of a peaceable pan-Britannic community. The particular instance - the integration of the initially truculent Scots knight Galeron - sets out the fundamental pattern within the Gawain romances, whereby outlying Celtic territories are assimilated to a centralizing English perspective; Arthur's kingship consists in his power to control and redistribute the lands - Scotland, Wales, Brittany, perhaps Ireland - that mark the borders of the body politic. The final stanza of Awntyrs projects this romance drive towards restored identity and inclusiveness onto the communion of the saints: the Masses arranged for the soul of Guenevere's mother bring heaven and earth together, and promise her full reconciliation with God.

Awntyrs is composed in one of the most demanding and richly echoic verse forms in the English language. Each stanza contains thirteen lines, rhymed ababababcdddc. The first nine verses are alliterative long lines, structurally bound by four stresses in addition to the end rhyme. The last four verses of each stanza form a "wheel"; each line contains two (sometimes three) stresses, while the first three rhyme on the same sound, and the last (often the shortest) line rhymes with the long ninth line. The density of alliteration in Awntyrs is higher than that of any other Middle English poem, with almost half its long lines containing four alliterating stresses. Moreover, more than half the stanzas begin with a couplet bound by identical alliteration (and six stanzas extend this identical alliteration through the first three couplets). In addition to this bonding within the stanza through repeated sound patterns, each stanza is linked to the preceding and following stanza through verbal concatenation: the first line of every stanza incorporates a word or phrase from the last line of the previous stanza. (In some stanzas the ninth line additionally repeats a phrase from earlier in the stanza, further linking these words with the last line of the wheel.) Finally, the last lines of Awntyrs repeat the first line, linking these two stanzas and thereby imposing a circular, iterative structure on the entire poem.

The features fundamental to Awntyrs's distinctive achievement have baffled readers in precisely opposite ways, producing complaints of deficiency - its discontinuity of plot, its lack of thematic unity - and excess - its proliferation of throw-away phrases, its formulaic and metric gymnastics. The spectacle that Awntyrs makes through its story and its language differs in kind from the qualities we associate with learned, high literate forms - for example, a Shakespearian sonnet or Dante's terza rima. The effects achieved by these latter forms are directed almost exclusively to readers - often solitary, non-vocalizing readers - and they solicit from such readers a highly intellectualized, intertextually informed, reflective response. The lapidary brilliance and density of poems like Awntyrs put formal manipulation of language to a different use: the cloisonné surface gives preeminence to pattern, to exteriority as meaning. The poem's profligate consumption of formulaic phrases and type scenes, of nearly fetishized objects like tapestries, dress, swords, helmets, shields, or coats of arms, urges an audience not to a extract a unique, internalized meaning, but to take delight in the structural, narrative, thematic, and stylistic variations that constitute the substance of such a performance.

Such delight is a special taste, and grows from the intersection of popular interests in chivalric ideals, the remnants of an aristocratic ethos or aesthetic available to a wider audience, and the talents of a learned (clerical) writer who could bring these together in a work like Awntyrs. The profligate quality that marks the poem does not simply use up words, but functionally extends the poem's cultural contacts at several levels: for a full appreciation, Awntyrs assumes on the part of its audience unthinking access to a long-absorbed store of words and phrases, and (on the model of the diptych structure) a continuously interactive response. Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other alliterative poems, Awntyrs relies upon a remarkably literate improvisation, activating what is already inside the audience through its established formulas; devoted listeners to such poetry - whether literate or not, like those for improvisational jazz, opera and romantic lieder, or MTV - imperceptibly become attuned to conventions, cues, and repeats that themselves turn into the source of pleasure in such performances. The repetitions within Awntyrs at the level of phrase, line, stanza, and episode are calculated not to appear novel, but to resonate with what the audience brings to the poem, at the level of conscious memory and of a cultural unconscious.

The fusion of popular and learned, native and Latin, oral and literate in Awntyrs accurately conveys the transitional context in which a mixed chivalric romance of this sort participated and was performed. To view the jewel-like surface of Awntyrs as superficial misses, then, the compacted quality of the poem's language and its narrative. Just as we need to abandon expectations of narrative unity in favor of the contingent understandings produced by a diptych structure, so in unpacking the meanings and effects the romance might have had in its own time, we need to abandon surface/depth or exterior/interior metaphors, which apply to exegesis, allegory, and other traditional high literate interpretive strategies. The decorated qualities of Awntyrs ask to be understood as a cultural event for listeners and readers already stocked with phrases and themes. In its place between literate and oral traditions, its surface is its substance, and performance - whether religious ritual, chivalric courtesy and prowess, or poetic composition - is a crucial part of its meaning.


The survival of Awntyrs in four transcriptions, all of which contain distinctive features (and defects) ensures that any edition misrepresents the "original." The poem's sources, its subtlety of structure and thought, and the complexity of its verse forms make almost certain that Awntyrs was a written, rather than an oral, composition. This means that there may actually have been an "original" on which (at various removes) the surviving copies are based. Yet a modern editorial search for "authentic" or even "correct" readings based on such a lost "original" would not necessarily reflect the expectations or experience of the original audiences. The practice of medieval scribes and amateur copyists/readers, in routinely and consciously altering, editing, and adding to their texts, suggests that (to rephrase a cliché of postmodernism) in the Middle Ages there were no "copies," only originals. Allen has recently argued the corollary of this proposition, that there can be no "final" edition, in relation to Awntyrs. Faced with these multiple transcriptions, an editor may choose to offer a "synthetic" or eclectic text, that makes best use (in the editor's own judgment) of the surviving variants or that even reconstructs the lost readings of the hypothetical undefective version, based on the witness of these variants. (Hanna's edition largely attempts this, and produces a text that is satisfyingly coherent; its readings are exceptionally learned, occasionally ingenious and sometimes inspired, and often convincing.) At the other extreme, an editor might simply transcribe without alteration one (or all) of the four existing manuscripts; this would present a text (or texts) that would at times be puzzling or nonsensical (especially to inex-perienced readers), but that would give an accurate sense of a medieval reader's situation. The present edition offers what may seem an unsatisfying compromise: I have given the text as it reads in the Douce MS, though in those instances where it is defective - either because lines are clearly missing or repeated, or because the passage makes no sense to me - I have emended, usually basing my changes on the readings of the other manuscripts. (These emendations generally rely on the copy in the Ireland MS.) What I have aimed to produce is a text of Awntyrs that accurately reflects what has survived for us from the Middle Ages, and that nonetheless tells a coherent and enjoyable story, even for a reader new to Middle English.

Oxford MS Douce 324 (Bodleian MS 21898) dates from the third quarter of the fifteenth century. Its scribe wrote in a northwest Midlands dialect, though linguistic traces in the four surviving transcriptions locate the poem's area of composition on the northwest border of England and Scotland; given the setting of the action in Carlisle, Cumberland seems a likely place of origin. In its present form, the Douce MS contains only Awntyrs; formerly, however, it was part of a collection that included poetical excerpts from Gower, Hoccleve, Lydgate, and others, and prose digests of Mandeville's Travels and the stories of Thebes and Troy (see Kathleen Smith, "A Fifteenth-Century Vernacular Manuscript Reconstructed," Bodleian Library Record 7 [1966], pp. 234-41; also Hanna, pp. 8-9). I have regularized orthography, so that u/v/w and i/j appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation and capitalization added. I have followed Hanna in his decision not to transcribe flourishes as medial or final e, though I have inconsistently taken this scribal notation as signifying a vowel where common practice indicates its presence (e.g., lines 489, 566, 591).

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Selected Bibliography


Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324.

Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B.

Thornton MS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91.

Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Robson, John. 1842. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Amours, F. J. 1897. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Gates, Robert J., ed. The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyne: A Critical Edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Hanna, Ralph, III, ed. The Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn: An Edition Based on Bodleian Library MS. Douce 324. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974.

Phillips, H., ed. The Awntyrs of Arthure. Lancaster Modern Spelling Texts, 1. Lan-caster: Lancaster University Department of English, 1988. [I have not been able to examine a copy of this edition.]

Mills, Maldwyn, ed. Ywain and Gawain, Sir Percyvell of Gales, The Anturs of Arther. Everyman's Library. London: J. M. Dent Ltd.; Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1992. Pp. 161-82.

Shepherd, Stephen H. A., ed. Middle English Romances. New York: Norton, 1995. Pp. 219-42. [I have not been able to examine a copy of this edition.]


Allen, Rosamund. "Some Sceptical Observations on the Editing of The Awntyrs off Arthure." In Manuscripts and Texts: Editorial Problems in Later Middle English Literature: Essays from the 1985 Conference at the University of York. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987. Pp. 5-25.

Eadie, John. "Two Notes on The Awntyrs of Arthure." English Language Notes 21.2 (1983), 3-7.

Fichte, J. O. "The Awyntyrs off Arthure: An Unconscious Change of the Paradigm of Adventure." In The Living Middle Ages: Studies in Mediaeval English Literature and Its Tradition: A Festschrift for Karl Heinz Göller. Ed. Uwe Böker, Manfred Markus, and Rainer Schöwerling. Belser Stuttgart: Mittelbayerische Druckerei- und Verlags-Gesellschaft, 1989. Pp 129-36.

Hanna, Ralph, III. "The Awntyrs off Arthure: An Interpretation." Modern Language Quarterly 31 (1970), 275-97.

---. "À la Recherche du temps bien perdu: The Text of The Awntyrs off Arthure." Text 4 (1988), 189-205.

Klausner, David N. "Exempla and The Awntyrs of Arthure." Medieval Studies 34 (1972), 307-25.

Lowe, Virginia A. P. "Folklore as Unifying Factor in The Awntyrs off Arthure." Folklore Forum 13 (1980), 199-223.

Mathewson, Jeanne T. "Displacement of the Feminine in Golagros and Gawane and The Awntyrs off Arthure." Arthurian Interpretations 1.2 (1987), 23-28.

Spearing, A. C. "The Awntyrs off Arthure." In The Alliterative Tradition in the Fourteenth Century. Ed. Bernard S. Levy and Paul E. Szarmach. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981. Pp. 183-202.

---. "Central and Displaced Sovereignty in Three Medieval Poems." Review of English Studies 33 (1982), 247-61, esp. 248-52.

---. Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Pp. 121-42.