Conflicting Interpretive Codes in Sir Gowther, Sir Orfew, and other lais:

Some Paper Ideas

        Gowther and Orfew are extremely complex characters whose narratives are created at the intersection of several different types of tale. Like Lay le Freine, Emare and the Erle of Tolous, these narratives share strong similarities with the saint’s life (see note below). Gowther also contains implicit critiques of the nobility which verge on satire. The anti-clerical satire of Gowther’s early career seems wildly at odds with the pious outcome of his penance. Orfew’s more subtle bending of the rules merges the tale-singer’s virtues with those of an ideal sovereign and lover, partaking as he does of his classical inheritance from Orpheus. The singer-noble is so rare that one would have to look to Tristan’s harp or rote playing for a parallel. The effect is somewhat like having a modern character be a corporate raider as well as an accomplished ballet soloist. Papers on these tales might attempt to explain the effect of the poet’s use of two interpretive codes in the same tale, either for satiric or spiritual effect. Here are some interpretive angles which you might use for the short paper.  They are only a sample and you should be able to find your own set of interpretive code conflicts in any set of these narratives.  This appears to have been a standard aesthetic strategy for packing them with unstable meaning.  (Medieval audiences had didactive narratives too, and generally those tales' meanings were not so prone to reversal unless one actively urged them to deconstruct.)

1) Note what Gowther’s early training reveals about what he loves best, and does the best. How might those attributes parody typical baronial values for a non-aristocratic audience? Especially note his antagonism against the church—does the poet seem merely shocked at this, or does he seem enthusiastic? What kind of game is Gowther’s narrator playing with the audience? How does his penance (silence, food from dogs’ mouth) affect the courtly codes of courtesy you are used to seeing knights obey in other romances? Why is this the means of Gowther’s redemption?

2) Gowther is related to a wide range of chivalric knights whose birth and youth is told in a special sub-genre of the romance known as the enfance or "childhood of the hero" tale. The first section of Malory contains Arthur’s enfance, and the French prose romances of the Vulgate cycle record enfances for Lancelot, Tristan, and Merlin. The last of these obviously is on the poet’s mind. You can find Merlin’s enfance in the Suite du Merlin—the devils in Hell are so miffed by the Incarnation that they attempt to duplicate it with a demon taking the place of the Holy Spirit, but the maiden confesses and the child is baptized, thwarting their plan but leaving Merlin caught wandering between the worlds of demons and men. How might this information affect your reading of Gowther’s fate? Especially, how might Gowther’s "conversion" and repentance be understood in the light of medieval notions about the general human condition? [Hint: what does "conceived in sin" mean?]

3) Kyng Orfew’s wife meets her abductor in a manner familiar to us from the answer to Gowther’s mother’s prayer, Degare's mother, and her experience is weirdly similar to Sir Launfal’s encounter with his unusual lady. How would you typify the construction of these Otherworld seduction/rape scenes, and what seems to govern their outcomes (in addition to, obviously, the gender of the human participant)? What sorts of changes do these narratives make in the basic type-scene, and what is the meaning of those changes? Especially, how do they construct a kind of ideology about the relations of the worlds of faerie and of demons with the world of human beings? (Bisclavret?)

4) Emare’s saintly endurance (so like Constance in Chaucer’s "Man of Law’s Tale" and Patient Griselda of the Clerk’s Tale) leads her to a "rudderless ship" voyage like Guigemar’s, and also resembling those of Tristan (in Gottfried’s Tristan) and those of Perceval and Galahad (in the Quest del Saint Graal). What is this motif communicating? How does its use set up a sense of special identity for the ship’s passenger, and how does this create tests for those on shore?

5) Degare’s father sets up a well-documented Oedipal conflict for his son with twin tests of identity—the gloves and the pointless sword. The narrative even initiates an association with the incest motif with the king’s daughter’s fears regarding what people will think should she become pregnant. Note that her certainty that people would believe she had sex with her father is totally unsupported by the frequency in other tales of non-incestuous sexual conduct of women in similar circumstances. How does Gowther’s peculiar youth trade on similarly forbidden acts of excess? Do you see his attachment to his "fauchon" supporting an erotically forbidden theme in this tale? Why does the narrator of a Breton lai want to tease his audience (or shock them) with this bizarre threatened resolution of the story? For comparison’s sake, when you reach Malory, you may want to skim into the section of the Tristan segment (which I did not assign) and compare the killing of Margawse, Queen of Orkney, by her son Gaherys (377).

6) How might Degare’s career and Gowther’s be compared as initiation narratives (with or without Victor’s Turner’s assistance)? What role does the "domme lady" play—co-initiate or agent of Gowther’s initiation?