Midterm Paper Ideas & Comments from the June 1998 English 240 Class

For some paper topic ideas involving the lais use of conflicting cultural codes, click here.  The following were collected from previous English 240 students.

1)  Damon’s working on a Book of the Duchess idea related to the dreams, asking "what does Alcyon get from her dream, esp. that she does not expect? What she wants is comfort—she either wants to see her husband alive, or hear that he is dead, at which point she can o about the ceremonies and try to forget the reality. But what she gets is truth, the actuality of death—her husband’s dead, bloated, slimy body in front of her. The Narrator just asks for sleep, comfort; he is an insomniac because of selfish grief—but they give him truth—other people suffer too, you are not alone. And when you are absorbed in selfish grief, you neglect your duties (John of Gaunt should have been ruling). John shows how he screwed up & how he felt."

Arnie says: Cool start—you’ve really made some progress in your rereading of this tale from your original position. When you underscore truth, what are you trying to say that the word alone wouldn’t communicate? There’s something important hidden there. Is death’s truth communicable in a number of ways? Are some more "true" than others, or do they just have differing effects? Could you link your developing argument to the instability of the Middle English "trouthe" or "trewe"? Since both are potentially linked to actions, perhaps the dramatic fulfillment of those dream requests might have a real point rather than being weirdly accidental as they might seem at first?

        Why do you say the Narrator’s insomnia arises from "selfish grief"? That may be crucial--are you reasoning backward from the hypothesis you’ve advanced about the MiB’s "pleynt"?

        That brings up yet another (oh joy!) complication—it’s not John of Gaunt in the poem, but a man in black. Don’t jump that fence without caution. How might you compare the MiB with the entity which visits Alcyon?

2)  Anonymous utters a cry for help: "I’m quite frightened about this paper. The only thing that has popped into my head has been to write a comparison of the same lay from Marie de France and the Middle English Breton lais. I think anything else will be dangerous (i.e., I wouldn’t know what I was doing).

Arnie says: I sympathize. It’s hard making the first leap into early literature without risking sounding like one doesn’t know the most basic rules, but everybody goes through it. Try to approach the paper pragmatically, looking for a set of patterns in the text that make sense to you and seem to reveal something about the author’s intentions. We’re after a degree of "insight" here, so the revelation ought to be something that isn’t immediately obvious on the surface. Look for patterns the narrator doesn’t comment on, or comments that don’t immediately seem to fit the pattern.

        Though the big money usually seems to be in the deeds and words of protagonists (e.g., Degare, the MiB, Gowther), it’s also useful some times to examine the way minor characters are constructed and used. Of course for those you’ve got less textual information, but you can multiply it quickly by looking for similar or contrasting minor characters in other related texts. For instance, I could imagine a score of papers on the general way either Marie or the authors of the Middle English lais use parents, children, servants, opponents in combat, pagan or monstrous opponents, lovers and other allies, animals, etc. Then there are the repeated social events which we’ve been drawing some conclusions about: oaths, vows, and promises; curses and accusations; prayers for assistance; arrivals and departures; voyages and journeys on horseback. A look through the visual artifacts in the photographs in my office (or at some originals in the Walters’ collection) might give you some additional ways to approach all of those events by comparison of the textual events with visual representations of them. You also can look at some instance of how Chaucer handles pagan and sacred sources in comparison with the strategies of the Breton lais’ authors.

        This is by no means an exhaustive survey of approaches. I just wanted to try to open the box a bit and let those little daemons out. Basically, any analytical method you used for a paper on a modern text probably is adaptable (if not immediately usable) to a medieval text. Just be careful reading the Middle English and the elements of medieval culture you find there.

        What the heck! Test me—throw a few approaches you think are too weird to work into a memo and demand that I show you how they could turn into a paper! If I can’t do it, I’ll buy you a beer (or some other suitable beverage and no beer if the college attorney says I can’t).

3)  Steve thinks "the fairy motif is very interesting; maybe I could relate Gowther’s "fend" to them somehow."

Arnie says: I’m certain this can be done because I’ve seen it. The relationships in any of the faerelond tales are fascinating. I’d compare two as you suggest rather than just trying to do one, since these critters are not objectively analyzable but are what C.S. Lewis called part of the "furniture of the medieval mind" (much like our "aliens" who are the new givers of supernatural gifts, stealers of souls, owners of fabulous wealth, livers of long lives, and even occasionally sources of insatiable sexual appetite with fatal consequences).

4)  Sasa asks, "In the poem ‘Le Fresne" and ‘Lay Le Freine,’ why are people who are bad and mean not punished, and why are people to whom wrong was done just forgotten?"

Arnie says: Excellent point! Clearly the poets’ sense of what makes a satisfying narrative does not include the two rules you just formulated based on principles you follow, and that may be a key clue to how the lais’ authors understood their craft. One way to test answers to your question might be to follow those who do get punished and ask how and why they seem to be singled out. For another approach, you also might see these instances of justice ignored as the solution to a problem of focus. After all, if every character’s fate has to be dealt with, and if they’ve all got to be appropriately rewarded, the tale will grow longer and longer. That effect can be seen in the sources for Malory’s Arthurian narrative which grew huge new narrative "limbs" as poets sought justice for previously neglected characters, and it’s the reason M’s tale is so huge even though he tries to rationally condense them. He has a lot of outcomes to account for, but you’ll note that even he can’t manage always to reward the sufferings of good people and to punish the misbehaviors of the bad. Could this also be some attitude toward earthly justice? What do people with a strong belief in the Afterlife expect to happen there, and how might that affect their expectations in this life? You also might look at the way the tales handle trials (e.g., Lanval, or The Erle of Tolous). You also might want to consult R. Howard Bloch’s From Quest to Inquest for insight.

5)  Sasa also suggests that the impact of religion on the works might be a focus and that the history in other parts of Europe might be interesting.

Arnie says: The first is surely important. We’ve seen good and bad popes, effective moral codes and ineffective ones, and people whose prayers are answered in some odd ways (see above). The key is to focus on some particular issue or event rather than dealing with "religion" in the abstract. Regarding history or literature of other European cultures, I’m not against it but the course syllabus is not un-full of alternative (if I can put it that way). Why look outside it? See my challenge to Anonymous above.

6)  Jessica also is speculating about "the comparisons/contrasts between the French and English versions of Lanval" but she’s not sure she can get a whole paper out of it. She’s also thinking about Malory.

Arnie says: First, and above all, don’t start out by fearing the topic won’t generate a large enough paper. That will put you off a lot of perfectly splendid topics which might be very satisfying to work through to their logical conclusions. The point at which you need to call for help is when you’re committed to the topic, have some outlining done and some pages written, and feel you’re running dry. Sometimes the solution is to change your point of view, your critical direction, and ask the question slightly differently. I’ve been emphasizing the Middle English poet’s adaptations of the French as a movement from courtly to popular literature (audience, setting, etc.). If, with some historical background reading, that isn’t proving the Old Faithful of topic treatments, how about looking at something from the tale’s structure—how much time does it spend on various parts of the story vs. how much time Marie spends? That might help you figure out where the Middle English author put most of his (I’m guessing gender) energies (and therefore most of his interest). Or, you could look at the proportions of dialogue vs. narration and talk about how the two tellers do their jobs. How might you describe Lanval vs. Launfal as a rhetorician? How about the faerie lady? The queen?

        As Jes noted, Malory will cover many of these same bases from his peculiar 15th century perspective. Maybe he’s even now making that connection.

7)  Aidan’s thinking about "Nature vs. God as Chaos vs. Reason" but I’d caution him to beware thinking that the medieval Christian God was reasonable. In fact, aren’t some of the basic facts about the faith supposed to be unreasonable (e.g., the Incarnation, the Trinity, Providence vs. Free Will, etc.)? Maybe there’s another way to put it. However he’s also pondering "comparisons of narrators in some of Chaucer’s stuff," which would make a really cool approach if he were to compare Chaucer’s narrators to Marie’s voice, perhaps, or those of the Breton lai narrators. Remember, Geoff has been to Italy, where the lime tree blooms, and he has seen the future there. He’ll never be the same as a court poet whose experience of travel amounts to criss-crossing Warwickshire.

8)  He also says, "I’m interested in the presentation of magic in a Christian world, and how/why that is done. How can an author in a decidedly Christian world present magic, etc.?"

Arnie says (in addition to his buttinsky insertions above): Yes, another of those hot-button issues of the C14! The magic predates the Christian dogma which appropriates all supernatural and natural powers to God, so whether from local folk or classical Roman sources, it has to be dealt with. Some merely rebel and go on practicing their old religion. They may take heat, but how is that different from those who persist in taking the drugs we’ve decided to make illegal instead of the ones we authorize for that special experience of transcendence? The tension about the representation exists, however, as the introduction to Book of the Duchess suggests re: the prayer to Morpheus. Would that help to explain "Orfew"’s author’s treatment of the faerie king as a lord of the dead instead of a male Tryamore? Also see the responses to Siri and Brinsley, below.

9)  Siri would like "to do something exploring the conventions of the faerie world. Maybe something to do w/ the relationship between a faerie lover and a human beoved and what that kind of relationship signifies."

Arnie says: Oh, so you want to explore the forbidden romance! Just remember that Christianity gets its start by a similar supernatural union. Odd, eh? The conventions of faerielond are, as I mentioned to Steve above, variable depending on the author and the audience. But some patterns do emerge. Steve is working on an annotation of the sixth chapter of Lewis’s The Discarded Image which talks about the wide range of faerie types. You might want to look that over and use Lewis’s taxonomy (grouping logic) to test some of the lais. You also might look for the moments when faerie codes collide with (or appear to) those of the human barons or the Christian Lord. I’m thinking here about Orfew’s bold challenge to the faerie king, the incest problem (or is it a solution?) in Degare, or the encounters of the women in the woods with their handsome faerie knight-rapists. (Does the "Wife of Bath’s Tale" interest you at this point? It’s surely not off limits, as long as you make a suitable effort to apply the course reading to understanding it.)

10)  Jen is still wondering about the "dream sequences in Boke of the Duchess and Alice in Wonderland," but she also might "take a couple from Marie de France and see how they measure up to the Art of Courtly Love."

Arnie says: The Alice/Dodgson connection seems daring but long. Can you extract an easily manipulated chunk of Alice’s dreamstuff and lay it on the slab along with the narrator’s post-Seys slumbertale? Or would you also want to incorporate the Ovidian tale in your analysis. If so, check it out in the original—it’s not long and comparison with Chaucer’s version might give you something to say, too.

11)  Meghan "wants to do something w/ Bisclavret, perhaps allocating a subtopic of the paper to wolves, significance, prevailing views, etc."

Arnie says: As you noted we have emailed about this, but for others’ benefit I wanted to raise the issue of the whole human/animal problem. How did Marie understand what it was to be human, and what were animals, to her? If you were to compare the wolf in Bisclavret with the other animals in Marie, what patterns might you find? This, too, is a project that might benefit from looking at medieval art, including decorative art (e.g., carvings on cosmetic cases, dinner plates, mirror backs, etc.) There are lots of good studies out there on the medieval philosophers’ attitudes toward this question, and you may even find some biological or anthropological studies on the C12 or C14 stocks of wild animals. Were there wolves in France and England during C12, or are these the animal "Sarasyns"? Again I urge you to take a close look at the narrator’s and knight’s descriptions of the "werewolf lifestyle." (Speaking of which, what’s with Hollywood’s persistent interest in this theme for the last ten years?)

12)  Brinsley has found herself "in a quagmire of questions about faeries" (probably a result of parking lot drainage problems?) which cause her to ask "what set of honor codes do they go by?" and "What makes them different from fiends?"

Arnie says: I’d say this one has gotten people’s motors running at last. Maybe you all could do it? In addition to what I’ve said above, I also want to make sure you know about Lucy Allen Patton’s book (on reserve) which is a general overview of the Arthurian world’s use of faerie characters. The Lewis chapter, also, might be of use. The "faerie or fiend" question surely occupied the minds of the medieval poets, as you can tell by the ambiguous treatment of these wild boys and girls. The works of Jean Gerson on telling true from false or demonic visions might help. I have a guide to those works with some excerpts of his thinking which might get you started.

        The usage "honor code" really cracks me up. Can you imagine bringing one of those faerie knights or Tryamore to the Honor Board? But it makes sense to wonder about that because that’s what humans do! Consider Faustus cross-examining Mephistopholis, the Summoner in Friar’s Tale digging more and more out of his willing informant-devil, and Janet’s fateful questioning of Tam Lin. We have a seemingly natural drive to know about the un- or super-natural. Aidan’s question about magic also speaks to that. Magic (spells, divination, etc.) was forbidden on the same grounds as alchemy—it trespassed on the rightful domain of God’s actions. The sense of "ryght" which you see being defended in the Erle of Tolous’s reaction to the theft of 300 pounds per year worth of land also is used in God’s behalf when a human dares to usurp His turf. One of Propp’s fairy tale rules puts it best: prohibitions always are followed by violations. Why would that knowledge be forbidden if it weren’t desirable? But I digress…(tee hee).

12)  Amanda is "thinking about doing [her] paper on Degare and the failed attempts at sex on his part" which she might compare to Persephone, or which she might explore regarding the rule that "you can’t have sex w/o knowing your lineage."

Arnie says: Are they failed attempts or resisted opportunities? Especially if you compare him with those faerie knights, he’s a "darned nice guy"! But I take your point re: the basic structural principle of medieval romance which says that a knight who is victorious ought to expect a female as a reward. That convention runs smack into the vortex of faerielond, though. Do any of the comments above help? There are other knights whose erotic pursuits are not without delay or frustration: the reformed Gowther, the Erle of Tolous (who even takes her confession in disguise before they can mate—what would Linda Tripp have made of that?!), the lovers of "Laustic" (nightingales as aphrodisiacs), the poor tercel eagles in PoF, Malory’s Gareth, etc.

        The Persephone comparison puzzles me—tell me more?

        The lineage rule works on a number of levels: ordinary social common sense, narrative complication-creator and –resolver, and psychological fantasy (who really knows one’s parents? All those abandoned children of nobles running around, raised by strangers…). What approach are you pondering?