Middle English Word of the Moment

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Tale of Zeus and Dame Ragnelle

No, it will make sense. Bear with me.

So, I’ve a conference next week at which I’m speaking on The Weddynge of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, a mid-15C analogue of the Loathly Lady tale that also appears in, for example, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale. The fact that the conference theme is “Intimacy: Family, Friendship and Fealty” means that I can’t just go haring off after the diversion that occurred to me last night, so: once more unto the blog!

The history of the Loathly Lady figure relative to Irish sovereignty tales (in which the lady represents the country) has been well established.  I have no citations by me, as I am writing this on the bus, but I believe Frederick Madden had something to say about it in his collection of Gawain stories, and it goes on from there according to the usual patterns of late 19-early 20C myth-discovery.  That is, therefore, the accepted mythical ancestor of the figure, and as hunting out mythological precedents is rather out of fashion and the genealogy is well traced I don’t believe  anyone has thought to dispute it, or posit any additional ancestor.

But surely the obvious classical precedent is the god-who-comes-to-dinner? Zeus, or some other god (usually Zeus as the patron of hospitality), disguises him/herself as some ugly, poor old beggar and asks for shelter and food. Or, of course, for help crossing a river, etc.  This is a test, the protagonist responds according to their moral stature, and the god suddenly sheds his unprepossessing exterior to reveal himself in all his glory to pass judgement on the protagonist, along with appropriate reward or punishment.  I don’t recall offhand whether any examples of that trope appear in Ovid, but it’s entirely in keeping with the system of virtue and reward evident in the Aeneid, to consider just two of the most culturally influential classical texts extant in the Middle Ages.

The main linking device is, of course, the transformation: a disguised stranger who appeared unworthy according to the ideals of the genre – poor and old and helpless in Greek mythology, disgusting and unmannerly and often old in romance – is suddenly transformed into the epitome of those ideals. In addition:

  • the transformation is in direct response to the actions of the protagonist towards the stranger,
  • in entering the narrative, the stranger will, explicitly or otherwise, initiate a kind of test for the protagonist, in which their response demonstrates (and thereby establishes) their virtue,
  • the stranger retains to him/herself the authority to pass judgement on the protagonist’s actions after the return transformation (rather than delegating that task to the narrator), claiming the status of moral arbiter of the narrative,
  • similarly, the stranger him/herself dispenses punishment or reward.
The trouble with this is that it’s a bit of a jump from Greek mythology to mediaeval romance.  And there is a good deal of cultural filtering and reconditioning that must take place there to make any Greek story (or figure) have any relevance to a late-mediaeval audience.

So where else can we find a more immediate precedent to this figure, a precedent that provides a type of bridging device between classical myth and late-mediaeval readership? a precedent in a tradition that is entirely accustomed to absorbing classical and/or pagan stories and recasting them to its own set of moral values?

... whanne Seint Iulian reste hym aboute midnyght al forweried [weary] and the wedyr colde and a gret froste, he herde a vois that wepte piteously and cried: 'Iulian, helpe me ouer for Goddes loue or ellis I perische for greuous colde.' And whanne he herde that voys he arose al sodenly [immediately] and passed the colde water and founde that pore creature that deied nigh for colde, toke hym up and bere hym to his hous and light the fere and dede al his diligence to warme hym. And as he myght in no wise make hym take warmthe he toke hym in his armes and bare hym to his bedde... And a litell after he that apered to be so sike and as a foule lepre stied vp shinyng into heuene, saieng to his oste: 'Iulian, oure Lorde hathe sent me to the, sendyng the to saie that he hathe receiued thi and ye bothe shull reste in oure Lorde witheinne a litell tyme' And anone he vanished awaye... (Gilte Legende, ed. Richard Hamer, EETS 2006; v. 1, 144)
Appropriately enough, that comes from the story of St Julian Hospitaller, Zeus’ descendant in the role of protecting the sacred laws of hospitality and defending the safety of guests.  But it works perfectly well in a Christian context, thus refigured – well enough that throughout the Gilte Legende (and elsewhere), saints and even Jesus himself regularly pop up where they’re not expected, mysteriously disguised, usually as someone helpless, and initiate a test of some kind or another.  Quite of a piece with the popular belief that saints really could interfere in a very material way with everyday life – all your big brothers are watching you.

So, if Dame Ragnelle has cross-genre precedents in, for example, St Julian and others, can we expect that her contemporary audience might have recognised them and picked up on the currents? I think so – if nothing else, Ragnelle seems to deliberately play with the collision of genre, pushing herself forcibly into society, conscious of her own incongruity and playing it for all it’s worth with her fine clothes and horse.  If so, the audience could expect her at her appearance to make demands which would set up a challenge as a moral test – apparently for both Arthur and Gawain. And she does, tests which Gawain passes and Arthur fails (largely by fobbing responsibility off on his nephew).

But if she refers to or recalls testing figures in hagiography, does this have an effect on what is being tested? Courtly virtues? Christian ones?  The story of St Julian explicitly opposes the life of the court (and its values) with the humble Christian values that  attend helping mysterious sick strangers (for which you have to live in an isolated hut beside a ‘flode’). The Wife of Bath’s nameless loathly lady gives a pillow-lecture that could be read as being in opposition to ‘courtly’ virtues. And Gawain, when his ugly wife has become beautiful, thanks God for her deliverance from a curse (and presumably for his from the equally horrible fate of having to look on her all the time). Perhaps Arthur’s failure is that he tries to adhere to courtly virtues which are (or could be read as) so dependent on appearance as reflective of personal status.

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