10-2 literary

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.2 (Spring 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Narrative Middle Ground Between Oral and Literate (With Special Reference to the Irish Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando)

Part Two

John R. Harris

This essay continues where that of Praesidium 10.1 left off, with sections and endnotes numbered consecutively.  I apologize for the initial disorientation which the reader is bound to experience in resuming this discussion after so long a lay-off.  The essay’s length made division absolutely necessary, and the length of individual sections did not permit me to divide at a point where coherence would be minimally damaged.

III.  Moments of vacillation, ambiguity, and awkwardness in the Eachtra Mhélora

      Before trying to answer Lord’s challenge and create an independent, paradoxically stable space for the “transitional”, I must first concede that he is quite right about many texts that fall into the crack: too confused about references to the past to be fluidly oral yet too poor in self-generated references to be styled literate, they can only be labeled “on their way” to somewhere else.  Such painful creations pulse with instability.  They could have offered little attraction, either of an aesthetic or of an instructive sort, to any generation of readers or listeners except, perhaps, insofar as they succeeded in indexing ill-understood myths to the dogma of the day.  Allegory would be the preferred manner of index–something simple between a parable and a fable, most often.

Of course, we may readily recognize several medieval texts as belonging to this category.  I mentioned the Merugud Uilix meic Leirtis (Homecoming of Ulysses Son of Laertes) above as an example of transitional writing—a pleasant enough but very clumsy tale recorded centuries before the Eachtra Mhélora.[17]  Only the encounter with Polyphemus has conserved any of its original Homeric amplitude; and the actual homecoming, though the redactor devotes a good third of his brief text to it, features such bizarre surprises as Ulysses entering his palace through a secret tunnel and finding a strange man in bed with Penelope (who turns out to be his son).  This scribe would have been better served to concoct more of the tale, no doubt, through reference to his local traditions, since he couldn’t recall enough of his very limited exposure to the Odyssey to produce a coherent whole and didn’t understand the ancient context enough to make the narrative’s tensions compelling.  His style, as well, preserves much of the minimalist “shorthand” look so characteristic of mythic transcriptions at this time, as if he intended to create a mnemonic tool–a set of note cards, as it were– than a yarn presentable through direct reading.  Writing does not contribute flourish to such early exercises of transition: it seems, rather, to record the arrangement of an old narrative skeleton’s bare bones.

In the four earliest tales of the Welsh Mabinogion, the prose is somewhat more rhythmic.  Most significantly, however, the ancient mythic matter often veers toward or hints at an allegory of spiritual death and rebirth; for all of the matter chosen contains some variety of resurrection, and the literate community (as well as the broader community to which a literate person might have read the stories) would inevitably have a deep familiarity with Christian doctrine.  Literacy in the cultural backwaters of northwestern Europe, that is, would almost necessarily have been disseminated by the Church’s institutions.  In fact, I think it far from daring to propose that the Eachtra Mhélora’s much later audience would have recognized in Orlando’s liberation from the hellish cave a spiritual redemption, and in Mélora herself not a female Christ, of course, but Christ’s crusading bride: the Church.  That none of this is specified should not surprise us.  Not only would the association be instantaneous in seventeenth-century Ireland (as in twelfth-century Wales), but declaring it openly might prove politically hazardous.  Just as Celtic monks five hundred years earlier might have been trying to persuade the indigenous population that its lore was riddled with the Christian story and lacked only the name of Christ, so colonized Ireland of Elizabeth’s day and afterward could transmit a Catholic veneration of Mother Church and the Virgin only with the utmost subtlety.

Our subject for the moment is clumsiness, and yet the Eachtra continues to appear subtle every time a kind of clumsiness typical of transitional works is weighed.  This is because our romance is indeed a late transitional work—a text which has weathered the awkward stages of change and found its balance.  Certainly the belief system projected by the tale, if not resonantly monotheistic, is implicitly so.  The occasional suggestion that other deities besides the Christian one may influence the cosmos strikes me as more artful than awkward.  For instance, the pagan oath employed by characters British and Asian alike—“he called sun and water and the divisions of sky and earth to witness”—while not unknown in pre-Chrisitian Ireland (see translation, n. 14), most often crops up in foreign lands.  In such  circumstances, no doubt, Mélora does not expect Christ’s name to be invoked nor trouble herself to use it since it would not be honored.  There is reason to suspect, besides, that the Puritans’ aggressive censorship of publications in the seventeenth century (and their influence would have remained livelier in Ulster than in England by that century’s final years) might have precluded invoking God or Christ in oaths.[18]

The hag Terribilis’s curious muddling of Christian and pagan spirits must be understood with similar subtlety.  In the relevant passage, she prepares to immobilize the wretched Orlando: “‘And I shall strike the speech from you now,’ said she, ‘thus as Merlin ordered me, for fear that you may lift a prayer or petition to God or to the spirits.’”  In the translation’s n. 7, I remarked that this is the text’s closest approach to conceding openly the power of a Christian practice (viz., prayer).  Nothing in the story, however, implies that a turning inward for strength and guidance is likely to be ineffectual—on the contrary.  The belief system is merely understated, not garbled.  We should also remember that we have to do with a fictional inhabitant of Hell, and that her confusion of God with other “spirits” (who may, for that matter, be the saints rather than pagan figures) might be intended to show how poorly she comprehends her adversaries.  Whatever seam may be visible here between pagan and Christian culture is surely not rough, at any rate.

Merlin the Druid is a thoroughly pagan figure, to be sure, as is his unnamed counterpart in the court of the King of Thessaly.  Yet the dreams they interpret are both paradigms of fall and hopelessness followed by redemption; and it is no great leap to imagine their failure—particularly Merlin’s—to see the greater message within the visions (i.e., that the light of goodness will prevail) as evidence of their ineffectiveness to the Irish audience.  Merlin actually discredits his wisdom in his own worldly terms by agreeing to subvert Mélora’s romance for filthy lucre, despite having already prophesied the romance’s eventual success to her!

By way of contrast, consider how the Irish scribe who recorded the Aided Con Chulainn (Death of Cú Chulainn), probably in the fourteenth century, works Christian doctrine into a story bristling with sorceresses, ghouls, and the pagan war-goddess Bodb.  As the hero breathes his last, he conveniently repents in a kind of battlefield conversion: “Were not the heart within me likely of stone or bone or iron until now?—and if I had known that it was a heart of flesh and blood, I should not have done the half the feats and deeds that I have done.”[19]  Here a flash of Christian insight has been inserted with as much incongruity as a lightning bolt in a snowstorm.  Interestingly, the audible effects of alliterated synonyms and extravagant runs have been enhanced by this recorder (as they were by the Eachtra’s author) far beyond what we find in earlier texts like the Merugud, and perhaps somewhat beyond what one would have heard in a live performance: the paradox, again, of literacy’s thickening the garnish of orality.  Yet the value system projected by the death tale is resonantly traditional: the quick, interpolated gesture toward a new spirituality only accentuates the dominant pre-literate ethos.  In the Eachtra, we find but a single brief case of such clumsiness, if it may be called so at all: the “sharp screeching of banshees and dire birds” which attends the great battle between the forces of Africa and Babylon.  Banshees, after all, are a sufficiently familiar fixture in Gaelic lore that their eerie appearance here scarcely undermines the story’s implicit metaphysical framework—and the author, for good measure, virtually parses them into natural wildlife for us!

The only other somewhat awkward material I find in the Eachtra Mhélora occurs as the heroine prepares to fight the King of Africa, and it oddly recurs just after her victory.  The Babylonian ruler is initially very reluctant to send a young knight in his stead against so formidable an adversary—and the Blue Knight offers him no objective cause to take heart.  What little he does say, besides, seems contradicted by his subsequent behavior.  In n. 12 of the translation, I protested thus: “The disguised Melóra gives the king no reassurance about her physical adequacy to the challenge, yet he is suddenly reassured; and she furthermore promises that she will make no undue request if victorious, yet the only reason for her volunteering is to secure the Lance of Longinus—a treasure not expressly mentioned in the pact.”

Rather than try to imagine how these clumsy but minor inconsistencies might be mitigated if the romanicer’s intent were thus-and-so, I prefer to stress the obvious: that the author has gotten himself into trouble precisely by attempting to give the tale more psychological depth.  These moments of awkwardness do not result from any misconstruction of ancient matter, but instead from the introduction of a realistic, potentially suspense-building remark on the King of Babylon’s part that he is sending a beardless youth against a seasoned butcher.  Were there no such effort at plumbing the characters’ minds—as there would not have been in purely oral circumstances—no clumsiness would be visible.  Melóra’s eventual request of the carbuncle is of the same order.  We could explain her slight deception as the psychologically innocent gaffe of a frantic ingénue… but an oral performer would probably not have put enough words in her mouth to generate this dissonance, in the first place.  The romancier is struggling a bit with the literate side, not the oral one, of his undertaking.

IV.  Literate attitudes in the Eachtra Mhélora

a)       textual evidence

Academics tend to spend their professional lives immersed in cultural variety to a far greater extent than the typical adult.  Whether they study the past or different faces of the present, they are more than usually aware that what seems an inedible meat or a horrendous burial custom to the parents of their students is de rigueur elsewhere in the world.  Ironically, this sensitivity to the degree of cultural conditioning embedded in “common decency” or “universal values” may create a blind-spot even as it exposes other errors of perspective.  The academic, that is, too often assumes that all values are merely cultural constructs since he or she has grown acutely aware of how many are so.  Life in a culture without writing is quite different from literate life: the way we express ourselves affects what can be expressed and how well, which in turn affects what we emphasize or neglect—i.e., what we value.  If such factors, taken altogether, were the sole determinant of our values, then we would indeed become different people as we changed means of communication.  What was bad before might become good, and the irrelevant might be the essential.

Such a “prejudice against the axiomatic” has much to do, I think, with the difficulty that scholars like Lord have encountered in forming a concept of the “transitional mind”.  As thought patterns evolve with means of communication (so this view goes), one finds backwaters lagging behind and hubs of activity forging ahead—but all are moving from A to C.  Within the middle space, there is really nothing to cling to.  Fond memories of life as it was back at A may be dragged into No Man’s Land, but eventually they must erode into dust.  Lord and more contemporary scholars have qualified this syllogism to the extent that they allow the evolution a much longer possible scale of time than was imagined by anyone fifty years ago.  The notion of an evolution, however, remains fully intact.  The wagon train must move west: no one can settle a desert.

I disagree in this respect.  I believe that human beings all possess a latent moral consciousness from which enduring values emanate: what we call (or what used to be called) common humanity, and was once called in Descartes’s day le bon sens.  This consciousness desires freedom for itself that it may act, and by extension it recognizes the vital importance of such freedom to others.  Obviously, it is forced to struggle with the frustrating gap between personal will and the much murkier will of other persons, arriving at some sense of individualism in the process.  At an advanced stage, moral awareness must confront the origins and the ultimate purpose of freedom: why be free if only to slave for carnal impulse like an animal—yet why sacrifice for others when one must at last die?  Human societies finally reach one of a rather narrow range of metaphysical conclusions on such subjects.  I know of no society that has ever embraced, from king to candlestick-maker, the notion of existential absurdity.

Some societies, however, are clearly better primed than others to address certain of these issues with serious attention.  A degree of leisure and affluence must probably precede any reflection at all.  A relatively small and tightly knit community, furthermore, would be unlikely to support much introverted analysis of personal obligations (of the sort, say, that leads the thinker to claim that he hears a divine voice within).  Members of hunter-gatherer groups may seem children of Eden to us in their ignorance of private property, their regard for others in the community, their bravery before privation and sickness, etc.; and in our admiration, we may not pause to recognize such “model” behavior as so deeply inculcated, both by cultural conditioning and by environmental necessity, that alternatives to it will only have occurred to the most daring, creative, and perhaps perverse.  (Note the further irony that, despite its willingness to ascribe all values to programming, the academic mind is also prone to admire romantically the “uncorrupt” life of Native Americans, Laplanders, and their ilk.)

Does the whole oral-traditional edifice of beliefs come toppling down once the scaffolding of verbal communication—of experiences shared instantly and openly with the whole community—is removed by literacy?  I answered that question above in the context of style: narratives often continue to be written as if they were being performed before an audience, perhaps for long centuries and with ear-teasing flourishes actually embellished for listeners.  The written document may indeed be read aloud to hearers with plenty of gesturing and dramatic intonation.  Of such energy, assuredly, were the readings of chivalric romances described by the innkeeper to the curate in Don Quixote (Part 1, ch. 32), when seasonal reapers would come to do their work and when “there is always someone who knows how to read.”  This report, of course, is roughly contemporary with the Eachtra’s composition.  Even as late as the nineteenth century, however, spirited public readings were the norm in places: e.g., the family Bible readings common throughout the American frontier.[20]

Once written texts appear, however, enough attention will be drawn to the word’s objectification—its isolation from the flux of sound—to awaken the oral tribesman’s latent intuitions of a reality parallel to, yet aloof from, the visible.  I say “awaken” and not “create”, because the new technology of script draws out from the soul’s shadows this sense of depth rather than assembling it ex nihilo.  Even people who continue not to read, and thus lead a life of perpetual listening and repeating, are bound to reflect upon the text’s “mystery”.  There are words always ready to be spoken on the page—always being spoken to anyone who can read.  There is a privacy, a durability, and an abstraction possible in words that was never suspected before; and if in words, then in thoughts.  And if in the thoughts of those who write and those who read writing, why not also in the thoughts of those who listen?

Moral perception of this nature (I must avoid the word “stage”, which would concede the point of contention to Lord) does not simply become a little more self-aware on its way to growing self-absorbed.  Transitional texts, rather, project characters who often register some inner compulsion intensely focused on external reality.  This may be a principled feeling of duty (as opposed to a mere honoring of the tribal code) in response to a combat challenge, or perhaps a secret but enthralling love of another person who does not or cannot accept a formal courtship.  The traditional commitment to the community and the past is still keen, but it is now overtly measured (through soliloquies, exchanges with confidants, editorial asides, and the like) in terms of personal anguish.  Such characters are sufficiently aware of themselves as individual agents that the question, “What should I do?” enters the narrative in some form and that its answer gives shape to subsequent narrative action.  Motives are magnified.  The agent develops a psychology whose parameters are no longer left for listeners to infer but are handled, instead, as a significant reality.

At the same time, we do not see “soul-searching”.  Characters still act, primarily (like their oral predecessors), and all glimpses which the text may provide of their thoughts are directed to action.  The role which the individual must fulfill in the community is of narrative interest more or less as much as the community’s own welfare: the two, indeed, are often critically related.  In a truly, fully literate work, the protagonist’s scrutiny of his or her motives not only might upstage any observable action: it might be all the action (that is, be the one source of tension, confrontation, and resolution) in the narrative.  The literate plot turns inward.  The transitional plot still faces squarely outward, and its more intimate protagonist is known only through a struggle with solid three-dimensional obstacles.

To say that such a plot must “graduate” or “decay” into greater psychological tension would be purely argumentative.  I can conceive of no a priori reason why a society’s values should not settle permanently (in the absence of external interference) into this roughly equal recognition of inner and outer life—of the individual’s struggle to reach right decisions and of the community’s urgent claim to the fruits of those decisions.  If an oral hero’s slaying of a monster to win eternal fame may be called a cultural paradigm, and if a literate hero’s conquering of dark neurosis to make peace with an estranged parent has the same fixity, then transitional culture offers images just as stable: e.g., the hero’s taking on a rapacious army of invaders because a harmless community has no other champion.  The motives of the self-sacrificial knight are notably less venal and more noble than the monster-slayer’s: are we to see their new depth as mere skidding along the slippery slope to complete literacy?  Many a jaundiced modernist, no doubt, would find in any self-sacrifice a neurotic’s stifled cry for therapy!  Is this a broadening of perspective, though, or a narrowing?  In a transitional society, service of others is still valued as a terminal moral objective (or perhaps instrumental to the service of a guardian god)—more purely valued as such, in fact, than it would be in an oral society.  What reasonable case may be made for viewing such “naiveté” as irresistibly “evolving” into a personality disorder as authors grow shrewder?  Must Sir Gawain become Don Quixote?  Is atheism the literate destination to which men must migrate after leaving their weather-making pantheon behind for a brief (or long) traipse through a lawgiving monotheism?

The instances of this “transitional ethic” are fairly numerous in the Eachtra Mhélora, though most are mere hints at an opening psychic depth.  Orlando and Sir Mador, for instance, both initially conceal their love of Mélora for “fear” (eagla)—perhaps a rather blunt word to use in analyzing an emotion somewhere in the vicinity of shyness and self-deprecation.  An oral performer, however, would probably never have mentioned their faintness of heart at all, since it leads not to any observable action but precisely to inaction: it has no objectively measurable consequences.  The author of the Eachtra, furthermore, differentiates the fear of the two knights.  Of Orlando, he writes, “fear would not let him declare himself to her nor any other, for he did not know friend from enemy in this castle yet.”  So Orlando is not really shy at all, but prudent and sensitive to the proprieties: an example of the scrupulous wisdom and finesse about which we have already been told.  It is Sir Mador, rather, who seems to sweat with a sense of unworthiness.  The romancier actually shows us his hesitancy through the heroine’s eyes: “And Melóra would often perceive that in him [i.e., his love] though fear would not let him declare himself openly to her.”  This is a double stroke of character development, since we now appreciate that Melóra is keenly observant and reflective even as we discover what passion Mador is gnawing upon behind his lean, hungry look.  As subtle as the Odyssey’s poet is, by way of contrast, we never read any portrayal at all of Penelope’s evaluating a suitor or a suitor’s pining for Penelope.

We also know by now that Melóra is nursing a fondness for Orlando—not in terms of a fear of humiliation or of becoming entangled in an invisible web of intrigue, but in a distinctly feminine way.  Taking the initiative is not an acceptable option for her: she must confine her feelings to an inviolable introversion from which they may escape into no inappropriate act: “she found neither sleep nor rest nor respite, but only her fill of confused, madly dashing thoughts, nor could she take her eye from him in any place where she might see him.” Homer’s Penelope has her dreams, too, which she shares with a sympathetic old beggar (her disguised husband)—but she sleeps excessively, one might say, and her dreams betray nothing of erotic desire, to judge by what the Greek bard confides.  The romancier is sidling much closer here to that which must not be spoken of our most intimate fantasies.  To be sure, we immediately find that Orlando suffers from the same ailment: “And no less was it so for him on his part, for the face and lovely ways of Melóra were ever wounding his heart and stealing away his sleep and peace and desire of food and drink.”  Yet Orlando’s predicament (and the “fear” passage cited above follows on the heels of these words) remains one of having to choose the right time and place.  Enough has been said to show us that both characters nourish true love’s flame, but that social circumstances are causing them to feel the heat from different angles.

The quality of the three central characters’ feelings having been established, the story shifts back to objective action.  We are provided only the briefest confirmation that Merlin’s evil scheme inspires joy in Sir Mador (“Mirthful was Sir Mador at that response”) and that Melóra’s feigned affection for him produces a yet greater effect of the same sort (“Sir Mador departed from the room full of quickening joy and of overflowing fantasies”).  When Orlando asks the hag from hell if she can offer him no reason to hope, his question stirs a certain pathos from being directed to the heartless guardian of his prison—but such expressions of feeling are not uncommon in more traditional texts (not least of all because they are utterances: to the oral performer, feeling is perfectly admissible if only it can be verbalized).  The Eachtra, then, by no means traces the secret sentiments of its characters from one peripety to the next.  Attention is paid early on to love as a motive in three different hearts because this source of vital energy explains so much of what will follow.  Where the connection to events is less important, feeling passes largely unnoticed.  Sir Mador’s love lacks confidence and optimism: therefore it seeks the slanderous, and soon murderous, conduits which create immense obstacles for our heroes.  Orlando and Melóra register an equal degree of sincere, devoted passion in their fondness: the narrative, however, will force them to reverse the aggression/passivity levels which propriety elicits from men and women.

Not all evocation of powerful hidden emotion, however, toys at a distance with romantic paradigms and gender expectations.  A particular poignancy emerges from the scene where the clever Melóra manipulates Sir Mador into divulging his wicked machinations.  The revelation that Orlando is already as good as dead naturally comes as a shock to her.  The author rather finely represents her inner struggle against betraying any distress in her observable manner, for she needs Mador to think her well disposed to the plot.  “After Melóra had heard this speech, a feeling of death and lasting doom came into her heart, and the senses of her body were blunted utterly and entirely, and what she did was to rise up to her standing for fear that Sir Mador might notice some trace of blunting upon her.  And it was a spell and a while that she could not say a word.”  One would expect a Victorian novel or the stage directions of an Ibsen play to contain this description of an intimate conversant’s rising and buying time; in an oral performance, it would be inconceivable.  (Though Odysseus occasionally conceals his feelings in an epic arguably far removed from direct performance by dictation, Homer gives few indications of his hero’s bodily gestures.)  Melóra, indeed, will soon be engaged in a life-or-death masque involving the disguise of much more than sentiments.  This important scene clues us into the strength of those sentiments, so that their subsequent neglect by the narration cannot beguile us as it does the strangers around the Knight of the Blue Arms.

No doubt, the story’s essential interest resides in its turning topsy-turvy the expectation of a passive heroine and a vigorously active hero.  The variety of res gestae narrated of the Blue Knight on his (her) mission is pretty characteristic of romances at the time; yet in making the he a covert she, the romancier has devised a way to use these great deeds as a measure of love’s depth.  This determined young woman seems literally ready to die a thousand deaths for her man, and circumstances now give her an opportunity to incur mortal risk at least that many times (if one considers all the combatants whom Melóra is said to oppose outside of Babylon).  Action thus serves to objectify feeling every bit as much as feeling motivates action: the connection is reciprocal and tight.

This is nowhere more apparent than when Melóra undertakes a duel with the redoubtable King of Africa himself.  The romancier retreats momentarily to the female pronoun which elsewhere hides behind the Knight of the Blue Arms’ disguise as he describes the state of mind allowing Melóra to be a match for a superman: “there was that size of strength in her will and mind to be a-bringing aid and assistance to her cherished and forever-loved of all men in the world—the son of the King of Thessaly—that she reckoned herself an equal match for warrior or mighty soldier anywhere on earth, and yet not seeking to lengthen a thing to her own advantage was she beyond bringing help to that man.”  The concluding remark stresses the purity of the sacrifice; the preceding comments urge us to believe that a deficiency of physical strength can indeed be supplemented by a tremendous effort of will.  This mind-reading interlude is strictly focused on accounting for a turn of the plot which, taken at face value, might not only seem quite incredible but could also eclipse the “moral” with its turbulent vigor.  Indeed, as the combat reaches its climax, the author (now referring to Melóra with male pronouns again) reiterates just where the hero’s valor originates: “after his seeing that—the greatness of the danger in which he was and the greatness of the things at stake from that—he strengthened his spirits and magnified his mind, and he hastened his hand and redoubled his bludgeoning….”  The “things at stake” are the recovery and salvation of Orlando.  I remarked in making the translation (see n. 13) that the romancier, though having earlier hinted that the Blue Knight’s steed was more agile (perhaps a recollection of Ariosto’s hippogryph?), declines to make of this fact a strategic advantage for the disguised princess during the fight.  To do so, after all, would have reduced the role of will power in the Blue Knight’s victory… which would have diminished the formidable power of Melóra’s love.

One more scene, actually set a little earlier than the attack upon Babylon’s besiegers, deserves remark for the kind and degree of abstract sentiment which it infuses into the story.  When the Blue Knight first appears in Babylon, the beleaguered king cannot understand why anyone with a choice in the matter would take his side—for he enjoys no advantages and is almost certain to lose at last.  The Blue Knight thereupon delivers a moving speech about the obligation incumbent upon any truly chivalrous heart to support the outnumbered and overpowered—“striking alliance with the weaker side, and strengthening the overmatched, putting injustice to its heels.”  As a speech, to be sure, this passage does not qualify as an introduction of “hidden feelings” such as a transitional author might typically import to a traditional text.  Its contents are also somewhat otiose, however, when viewed simply from the perspective of plot-building.  The Blue Knight might have devised any number of other explanations (e.g., that the African king was his ancestral enemy), or the King of Babylon might easily have lacked the subtlety to conceive the question.  Instead, the romancier seems to use the scene as a stage wherefrom to defend a value system very dear to his heart.  The Homeric contrast is again instructive.  I recall no point in the Odyssey where a character similarly speaks on behalf of moral duty with such abstraction.  Athena lobbies for Odysseus on Olympus, the suitors’ vile activities are condemned by various parties at various times… but no substantive adjective abstracting a moral subset of humanity—“the weak”, “the righteous”, “the wicked”—occurs in the fashion typical of later elegiac poets like Simonides and Theognis.  The poetic fragments of Solon might be about the earliest place to find such a thing: i.e., literacy needs further time to percolate.

In this speech of the Eachtra, contrastively, the Irish author appears very much to desire a brief broadcast of noble principles.  One might object that his wish disrupts the tight bond we have seen elsewhere between expressions of feeling and events central to the plot.  I incline to think, rather, that he is offering us the basis of the Arthurian world’s superiority, as he sees it, to other worlds, and is thus undergirding his heroine’s many successes.  Melóra is no longer merely risking death for her beloved: she is the Blue Knight representing Britain in far-off lands (for she never seeks to deny her country of origin).  As much as her personal determination allows her to surpass her physical limits (a degree often approaching the miraculous), her humane creed also bolsters her in something of the same manner when she must strive—disguised as a male warrior—in wildernesses roiled by greed, arrogance, pride, injustice, and other unchivalrous qualities.  The romancier arranges for her to deliver this speech before the most virtuous of all the rulers she will meet, and then no more.  Yet its message, I suspect, is intended to become a backdrop for her encounters with less benign despots, and thereby to suggest to the audience that her continued survival is owing to her creed itself as well as to her personal valor.

Expressions of high principle aside, the Eachtra also offers us one more suggestive (if not fully persuasive) instance of intimate emotion leaking into the text’s action.  I proposed in n. 20 of the translation that the following sentence, which describes the Blue Knight’s concealing tears at the sight of his (her) father’s misery, might echo certain passages in Homer’s Odyssey:  “And after the Knight of the Blue Arms saw that, he could not resist a swoon of grief, and he turned his back to the king and released a stream of sudden-running tears from himself.”  Naturally, if Homer is our touchstone for a highly evolved yet still traditional composer, then the Eachtra’s author cannot be supposed very innovative for writing a description that seems vaguely Homeric.  Yet this scene in the Irish work does, at last, communicate strong and hidden emotion without relying on speeches.  Indeed, a dynamic tension is hereafter created between Melóra’s speech and her true state of mind.  The nuance is slight, but real: only very rarely in any oral-traditional work do we find a character saying something at which his heart bitterly chafes—at which we know his heart bitterly chafes.  For that matter, Odysseus does not in fact contradict the tears hidden from King Alcinous by any immediate utterance; and when he fights to speak with composure as Penelope confesses her suffering to him, thinking herself in a stranger’s presence, he is not moved to tears.  Only his anguish at seeing his old dog Argos expire upon a garbage heap (Od. 17.304-305) has a setting proximate to Melóra’s, where the disguised hero must speak evasively through his tears—and one must suppose that the young lady feels worse, much as Odysseus may love his faithful hound!  Suffice it to say that the Odyssey sometimes comes very close (much closer than the Iliad) to the kind of awareness of “inner life” as distinct from “outer life” which we seek to define here.

We may note in passing, too (since the Odyssey has so often served as a foil in this discussion), that Melóra asks for mercy on behalf of the villains whose evil plan very nearly destroyed her and her beloved knight, whereas Odysseus and Telemachus exact an eye for an eye as their tale concludes.  Melóra recognizes that the motive behind Sir Mador’s wickedness was an unrequited love.  “It’s on my account that the son of the King of Spain did do every misdeed that he did,” she declares in justification of her request.  Homer actually offers us the prospect of at least one suitor whose motives are not ravenously acquisitive, but who simply keeps bad company: Amphinomos (whose name might be freely translated “vacillating habits”).  He dies with the rest.  To the oral mind, deeds speak for themselves: he who is among thieves must be a thief.  For Melóra (and for her author), there’s rather more to it than this.  What we do does not necessarily resemble what we intended, nor what we intended what we really wanted.  A significant milestone in the advance of moral consciousness has been reached.

b)    generic evidence

     Now a very few words about genre: for the question of romance—its origins, its cultural environment, its ramifications, etc.—is immensely complex.  I must plead lack of space in defense of this section’s unsatisfying brevity.

First of all, as was indicated in the opening section’s profiles (see previous issue), romance has a necessary connection to social and cultural instability.  Though it may feature dozens of participating characters, the audience follows only one or two with any intensity from beginning to end.  Ties with the broader community, if not severed, have loosened since tribal times.  The physical mobility which carries the hero and/or heroine among scores of new faces is indeed a consequence of sweeping cultural change.  Ships now sail and caravans now travel: trade routes have been blazed, and commerce is on the rise.  (Recall that commercial activity is one of the frequent stimuli for the creation of written records.)  New lands and strange customs, while perhaps more intimidating than ever since they must be confronted directly and continually, also grow fascinating in their difference.  Interest in one’s native customs and conviction that violating them is strictest taboo wanes proportionally to the degree of exploring and wandering.  Though the wayfarer may return home, either in “real life” or in narrative, more appreciative than ever of his roots (like Odysseus, once more), the genie is out of the bottle.  For looming posterity, at any rate, the old ways cannot be the right ways simply because they are ours; a comparative case analyzing them for special virtues must be made for a new generation of worldly-wise adventurers.

Already a volatility may be divined in this genre which attaches to most attributes of transitional culture.  At what point does the Other discovered by the wanderer become the Familiar?  At what point do his native ways simply become other ways, as arbitrary as those he has seen beyond the sea?  When does Homer’s Odysseus become Dante’s Ulysses, bored with home’s limitations and addicted to new horizons?  We revisit here the possibility so tempting to scholars (with their passion for spectra and progressive change) that Joyce’s Ulysses must be the eventual end of it all—that leaving home must at last render one eternally homeless.  From an economic perspective, one could argue that budding markets and nascent commercial routes must inevitably place a price tag upon everything and debouch into a globalism doomed either to an insipid modernity or a triumphant meltdown into Marxian utopia.  As for psychology, we might well suppose that once individuals have been shaken by the thousand out of their village nests to rove the world, they will seek reassurance more and more from tight circles of close friends, cultic sodalities of those who have surrendered to the situation’s terrors, or perhaps the Ubermensch’s tragic but intoxicating nihilism—all of these a surrogate, in some way, for the tribe’s irreversibly lost alma mamilla.

Such prophetic rhapsodies of progress or decay (depending on one’s value system) can be mesmeric, and I myself have sometimes succumbed to them as a scholar.  Yet I find their compulsion dubious, in the end.  People who travel a great deal can and do return home with gratitude and intent to stay: one’s earliest habits are generally those with which one is most comfortable.  A limited trade network can be quite as stable as hunting and gathering—probably much more so in critical respects—and no inexorable destiny drives traders to keep broadening their circle of clients.  (Greed may spur some to break the rules, but the rules are just as likely to be enforced: lust for wealth is no more embedded in human nature than submission to the group.)  Ties to family and ethnos have been willfully and mercilessly riven in our time as impediments to a globalist order of one kind or another—yet people continue to start families, to love their children, and to seek out distant relatives.  The engine powering this cultural vector toward complete transformation looks more fanciful than real when one begins to pick at its parts.

The Contribution of Folklore

      Consider the knotty question of folklore.  A real social transformation is driving folkloric texts, I believe—yet its itinerary is more a series of loops than a progressive, ascending line.  Most contemporary scholars decline to distinguish folklore from myth on any sort of cultural timeline.  The deep matter of the two is the same, they argue: only the surfaces have changed.  Writing about the sequence of the landbound sailor’s going inland with his oar until it is no longer recognized, classicist William Hansen argues that Homer’s Odyssey merely caught in its vast epic hems a vignette that has traveled the world for time immemorial.  Though sailors best grasp the sequence’s subtleties, “a constituency of landfolk… were [also] amused or charmed by the narrative and… became mostly passive bearers of the tradition….”[21]  Hansen concludes that the folktale so resembles the god Proteus in its adaptability that to speak of an age when it did not exist is only to be fooled by one of its metamorphoses.

Yet to have observed that the folktale enjoys a level of popularity which lubricates its passage across spatial and temporal boundaries is already to have distinguished it from myths, which can appear quite grotesque outside their small cultural envelope.  Odysseus is indeed a mythic hero with many folkloric characteristics.  We can all root for him as he reconnoiters his palace: he is a “little guy” in his beggarly disguise, facing immense odds and forced to survive by wit and wile.  Far more difficult to understand are his numerous vague connections with otherworldly figures and cycles (e.g., Hermes, Circe, and the full succession of seasons which marks many of his sojourns).  As a mythic character, he must once have occupied a demigod’s place amid the mysteries of the life/death interface.  As a folkloric character (and I do not name him such, but say only that he tends in this direction), he has greatly profited in popularity and accessibility from a general “degradation” of his circumstances.  Now Hades is just a strange land, now death’s torpor the effects of the lotus, now death itself merely a series of tight spots, now oblivion a clever change of name or the adoption of rags and tatters.

Only the surface has altered—or perhaps not even the surface, but only its backdrop, its mise en scène; yet in that fluid, often implicit context resides a major phenomenon.  One of the twentieth century’s premier folklorists, Stith Thompson (compiler of the Motif-Index of Folk Literature), registered his skepticism of distinctions based on ritual/religious function, observing that, “for primitive peoples everywhere, any differentiation between ordinary tale and myth is very minor.”  Yet his declaration was at once qualified thus: “there is a point at which any confusion between folktale and myth ceases….   ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Snow White’ have few of the usual characteristics of myth.”[22]  Precisely.  Talking barnyard animals and genii emerging from bottles differ from trickster Olympians assuming various shapes, not because they utter different words or even because they have vastly different powers: an ox may pronounce himself Zeus, and he may effectively be so in his tiny universe.  The triage, I contend, must proceed not by remarking embedded detail, but by gauging an airy envelope of ethical attitudes and presumptions.  Performers of immemorial tales do not make their heroes more human (or more humble, like the ox) because they have too many demigods and wish to popularize some for casual, frequent use: that indeed would be a deliberate functionalism which belongs to the print world of calculating publishers, not to the traditional world of erratically growing narrative snowballs.  Rather, the folkloric world itself has grown more human, in the sense that central characters in folktales worry less about raw nature or the supernatural than do mythic heroes and more about newly complex or hostile social settings.  (As for Odysseus’s worries, he is clearly more mythic in the epic’s first half and more folkloric in its second half.)  The successful tribe or clan was never a very threatening environment for those within it—far less so, anyway, than were nature’s vagaries. The society recently rendered intricately hierarchical by new trade, new wealth, new technology (like writing), and new mobility is far more challenging.  In the latter case, those who ride the waves of change to the top continue to cultivate the mythic view, wherein their success is projected as according to cosmic plan.  Even the literate Europe which matured around the printing press struggled to foster a notion of manifest destiny in its epics for over two centuries after Gutenberg’s invention.

The social game’s losers and its hard-taxed, however, put tradition to different use.  The hero became a farmer’s cast-off son who made good by luck and lying, a leprechaun at his beck and a bluff ever ready on his tongue.  The tribe’s myths had their trickster gods, to be sure—but they were gods; and their tricks, besides being steeped in aetiology and ritual (a trait which Thompson found just as applicable to folklore), remain acts definitive of an evolving order rather than of a decaying social and moral pell-mell.  Among hunter-gatherers, never would so lowly a personage engage in such communally subversive behavior and come out looking so like a champion.[23]

Nothing can be plainer than that folklore was abundantly available to the author of the Eachtra Mhélora.  The heroine immediately has a certain compatibility with the folkloric type of protagonist (though, like Odysseus, she is noble-born and ultimately serves the highest standards of honor).  She is a woman forced to do a man’s job—hence very much an underdog.  Disguise is an integral part of her plan to survive and succeed.  The straight face which she preserves before the villainous Sir Mador in order to beguile him, though suggesting rare fortitude, also shows craftiness; and the tricks which she and her accomplices play first upon the arrogant King of Asia, then upon the slightly bombastic King of Narsinga, though deserved, remain underhanded.  Since the distinction between myth and folklore is all about surfaces, could the Eachtra’s author not have borrowed from an Irish myth and then adjusted the setting downward?  For that matter, could he or she not simply have borrowed lock, stock, and barrel from the likes of an Ariosto, who had already melted down mythic ingredients and stirred in local folktales?

The answer to such questions is certainly affirmative—to all such questions; and there are still further possibilities which could coexist with those just suggested.  Material from local folktales might have been “upgraded” so as to be consonant with a higher moral standard than the typically folkloric “dog eat dog” ethic (the most likely scenario, in my opinion).  Take Mélora’s clever discovery of Orlando’s plight and whereabouts from Sir Mador—a type of ruse which may be traced back at least as far as the puzzling Math vab Mathonwy (a medieval Welsh text fraught with compressed mythic allusions) but also prominent in mainstream folklore.  It appears amid narrative circumstances more like our romance’s in a nineteenth-century tale told by Mícheál Mac Ruairí.[24]  The lady in that story is afflicted by a ruthless giant, so her deception can scarcely be called cruel; but her ultimate objective is happily-ever-after union with an enterprising peasant, so the fate of royal dynasties and the survival of chivalry are by no means at stake.  Mícheál’s tale also features the hero’s magical ability to transform himself into a hawk, which old Máirtín Neile employed in the yarn named by Pedersen “An Mhaighdean Mhara” (“The Sea Maiden”: Mícheál’s lady, too, begins as a sea spirit).  The hawk in Máirtín’s version, however, takes most unchivalrous advantage of the special power to wing his way into a maiden’s chamber and switch back to human form.  He rapes the girl![25]  Even among non-literate raconteurs of the humble countryside, then, surfaces are readily adjusted up or down on the scale of moral respectability.

Two points deserve emphasis, then.  First, the environment which generates folklore is really not unlimited; or at the very least, we may say that it is most fertile in times of growing social complexity, as when tradition is being adapted to literacy by the more privileged while welling into a stock of ruthlessly expedient counsel—a body of “how to survive” tales—among the unsophisticated.  The Eachtra belongs to such an era.  Its author (or, very likely, a series of authors connected with it) has chosen to enlist folkloric matter along with other sources into the service of a “high” morality wherein devotion to the community still figures strongly.  This creator, however, appreciates and exploits the greater intimacy which folklore enjoys with its central characters and the new attention which it pays to personal as well as public struggle.  The evolving ethic of an internally compelling morality (which literacy will enunciate as individual conscience) seems to fit well into stories where somewhat isolated people face somewhat secretive decisions.  The man (or woman) who would keep the faith on a noble mission is often put under strains not unlike the poor farmer’s or fisherman’s seeking to pocket a few coins while surrounded by shysters and bailiffs.  Both, at any rate, testify to a growing gap between the public and the private, if in very different ways.

Herefrom follows a second point: the aesthetic of a well-developed transitional tale like the Eachtra Mhélora has a kind of built-in multivalence.  The story is readily understood as allegorical (sometimes, we may suppose, without its author’s full or clear intent).  Since so much of its matter yet rings with ancient mythic resonances (no longer fully familiar to the audience, but not fully forgotten, either) and since folklore’s humble genius is melding old sequences into new situations all about it, such a story constantly seems to whisper, “The event of which you now read is what it is, and also what it seems, and also the lost something which it faintly seems.”  The medieval penchant for infusing objects with symbolism (e.g., the hero’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) and plot lines with allegorical suggestion (e.g., the three hunts in that same work’s third book) is universally recognized.  Transitional works, at their pinnacle, do not evade such multiple attributions of meaning, but invite them.  The dominant mentality of such a period is convinced that life means more than it appears to and that any given event may represent a gambit in which one’s soul is the stake.

The Triumph of Romance

I proffer these remarks by way of explaining the variety of romance that we have in the Eachtra Mhélora; for romance, at last, is the genre which materializes from cultures with somewhat destabilized social boundaries, destabilized ties to a yet valued tradition, destabilized confidence in the future, and destabilized networks of family and friends reflected in the narrative’s volatile setting.  The romance, that is, projects instability in search of rest, its audience composed of people who have less stability than they want.  To claim that this audience longs nostalgically for the fixity of “the golden days” would be careless, for literate people (or people with access to literate presentations, which isn’t quite the same thing) in a transitional era must at least suspect the inadequacy of yesteryear’s value system.  Indeed, the memory of that fragility haunts the romance’s twisting corridors of fluctuant tension.  Going back is not an option: whatever new peace may finally be won must commemorate the struggle of its winning–the supplemental multiplier of the old formula.

To be sure, nostalgia often plays about the romance’s surface, especially when we view it retrospectively as more progressive outsiders.  It may appear to us to resist inevitable change.  Heavy consumers of the adventure novel (i.e., the prose romance’s last hurrah before modernism’s bleak victory) have historically been represented as Walter Scott describes the adolescent Waverly: beguiling long hours fruitlessly over idle fantasies with no connection to reality.  Women in comfortable circumstances appear to have figured prominently among the medieval audience (cf. Boccaccio’s introductory remarks to the Decameron), and they most certainly had time on their hands.  Such people far from being pushed to their limit by misery like consumers of folklore, might well be portrayed with some justice as the bored and pampered in search of escapism.

I believe the more correct portrait, however, would be one of people educated and cultivated above the average who felt that their refinement (always a product of conserving the past) risked growing obsolete in a world of ever shallower roots.  The romance, unlike folklore, did not soothe a worry about perishing materially (or flatter a savage dream about materially turning the tables): it hinted, rather, that formulas of conduct cast overboard by a new generation of pirates might yet be fished out of the brine and adjusted to a more intense existence.[26]  If these audiences were bored within a sterile gentility, it could well have been because they felt ill equipped for action in such a tawdry skirmish.  The romance redeemed the sense of inhibition, of thoughtful reserve, and of high duty—the “gentleness”—of people like them.

Said from another direction, romance is the projection of folklore into a higher social tier.  Romantic heroes still require special favors from benign spirits, still must supplement (if not replace) physical might with craftiness, still travel in a space beyond normal rules and taboos (though more likely a foreign territory than folklore’s near but supernatural zone), and still find solutions only for personal problems rather than for tribal/ethnic threats.  In all of these ways, they resemble the folktale’s lucky rogue more than the myth’s superman.  Yet the romantic ethos preserves much of the mythic value system which folklore ignores or even derides and contradicts.  The hero of the romance tends to be an idealist of some measure: his motto is not “the devil take the hindmost”.  Though his naiveté may well land him in deep trouble, he does not therefore renounce its principles, a fidelity which eventually earns him certain reprieves and favors, as well.  Odysseus lies, assumes disguises, and skulks about because he wishes to return things to the status quo from which an age of corruption has jolted them.  (This is not quite a romantic wish, since he can turn back the clock without any correction of its cogs and springs.)  In the epic’s final book, he is once again the Iliadic warrior, fighting now beside his father and his son in a grand image of renewed coherence.  The folkloric trickster, in contrast, steals, cheats, and deceives to prosper.  He may assume finer ways once he lives in the manor on the hill (the story seldom take us past his arrival there), but he is not returning to anything: he is leaving his old misery entirely behind.

Transitional culture, I contend, sets these two genres—folklore and romance—in parallel motion at different levels of society.  Either draws liberally upon the other, so their narrative occurrences frequently bear a resemblance.  The difference lies in what I have called the romance’s idealism: i.e., its continued commitment to a code of propriety and public responsibility which, while violated by many within the narrative, proves at last rewarding both spiritually and materially.  Unlike the folkloric value system (which is truly non-existent unless unremitting expedience may be styled a value), the romantic system is self-sustaining.  It has in fact succeeded in revitalizing a stable code in times of instability–a neo-mythic order whose old referents have been lubricated with plenty of interpretive finesse.  “Bend but do not break,” runs the revamped credo.  “Remain true, but resourcefully true.  Adherence to principle provides its own stability as all else ebbs and flows—but only roots need adhere inflexibly.”

If my estimate of this genre is correct, then the transitional need not be doomed to “transit”.  That it has historically done so around the world at greatly differing rates appears to justify its name only in retrospect.  (If literate culture soon devolves into an electronic orality, as seems very possible, should we then style it “late-transitional”?)  The Eachtra introduces a depth into the story’s central sexual relationship, for example, far beyond what we see in traditional tales of purely oral provenance (i.e., myth or folklore, either one).  The two lovers swear eternal fidelity one to the other long before their marriage is formally blessed (viz, “they made an equal pledge of love between them, and… they took a vow either one not to stray from the other on pain of death and damnation”).  This grave and secret undertaking implies not that religious ritual is growing obsolete, but that personal commitment is beginning to be understood as its essential foundation.  Furthermore, the bond between Orlando and Mélora, far from drawing them away from their families into despairing isolation, eventually brings families, households, and kingdoms into a closer relationship than ever before—an affirmation of coherence seldom to be found in fully literate prose romances (e.g., the nineteenth-century novel).  The romancier takes great pains in his surprisingly long conclusion to stress that their love has had a fully salutary effect upon the broader community.  Had Mélora stayed strictly within the boundaries of convention, no such happy renewal of the past’s order would have been possible, for the past was clearly not going to remain on its own merits.

This romance, then—and others of its kind throughout the Middle Ages—by no means discards traditional ways (as will the “serious” novel of high literacy) or unmasks the absurdity within traditional beliefs (as does the folktale very coyly).  It insists, rather, that the old life be lived with a new concentration—a “perfection” (in the sense of the King James gospels: i.e., an attention to detail).  Individuals’ lives are enriched when they scrutinize their motives (or are made miserable, as in the case of Sir Mador, when they fail to do so).  Miraculous power may even be tapped when one purifies one’s motives and dedicates oneself to the service of others in deserving need.

I again pose the question: what in the system of values just sketched seems artificial, transitory, or otherwise incapable of indefinite survival?  In Homer’s Odyssey, we find no such clearly enunciated ethic—and most literate readers, I think, want very much to “read it in”.  Surely Odysseus struggles so mightily to return home because he loves his wife… but this is left implicit among several more obvious motives.  Surely Penelope so anguishes through years of subterfuge and loneliness because she loves her husband… yet this, too, requires a willing reader’s presumption.  Surely the hero feels a high duty to accept his mortality (of which Calypso offers to relieve him) and sacrifice his final years to restoring his formerly just and peaceful kingdom… but we can again only infer as much, and only from personal intuition—not from any genuine textual clue.  We want to interpret the epic’s last half, particularly, as a romance rather than as a folktale—as a triumph of long-suffering but virtuous hearts rather than of do-anything-to-win cleverness.  Yet the Odyssey remains teetering on several generic brinks while still resting most of its weight in the oral-traditional.  The instability in this case is exists within old ways not sufficiently adapted to vivify a crumbling system–not in tentative new adaptations of the old.

Medieval romance makes those motives explicit which the Homeric poet cannot quite bring from the shadows, nor does it accept the yet pre-literate, now sadly isolated sub-class’s dismissal of all disinterested motives.  Service of one’s countrymen and fellow believers, dependents as well as overlords, is important not primarily because of the praises they will then sing of one’s strength, but because of the favor one thereby finds before God.  Service of one’s lady (or, in Mélora’s case, of one’s man) is indeed something of a symbol in this regard: it represents the personal fervor without which any service is mere fulfillment of the traditional code.  The transitional ethic demands that the old way be followed with a new zeal—a longing for the way’s destination on the acting individual’s part that might be compared to love of one’s soulmate.  The agent–the adventurer (for action in a changing world has become an adventure)–must now show ingenuity to prevail, just as the lover, though preceded by countless lovers before his day, must show energy and even craft to win the one heart special to him.  An intimacy between abstract duty and its particular servants has evolved here which need not evolve any farther, for it is already the highest expression of a communal life lived by discerning individuals.

IV.  Related issues not addressed here   

The terms of this evaluation may seem haughty.  I have admitted that folklore is proliferating at the same historical moment as the idealistic, allegorical romance: why should the latter be held as culture’s high-water mark, while the former—which must surely answer to the needs of many more people (that mass of people denied any access to documents at all)—be regarded as a faintly toxic by-product of the process?  How can the romance claim to be “truer” when whatever objective confirmation its vision finds in hard reality is likely an enforced pageant where starving serfs act as props?

Of course, political issues are broached by such questions which this essay can scarcely address.  I may say the following, however, without straying too far afield: folklore is by nature morally degenerative—it cannot serve as the basis of a durable culture, and has certainly never done so.  Its moral dogma is softened, to be sure, by the frequent presence of benign spirits (everything from kindly ghosts to fairy god mothers), but the ethic of its fully human characters is one of “cozen others before they cozen you”.[27]  To social and political theorists who protest, with a distinctly materialist bias, that idealism is the greatest cozening of all if you can get the underclass to swallow it, I would respond that the ideal in this case requires championing causes of the weaker (in Mélora’s own words), and that the historical presence—probably an abundant presence—of hypocrites who cheered that ideal without practicing it cannot obscure the cultural commitment to service.  The potential for a humane society at least exists within the ideal’s parameters.

I would further note that the folkloric ethos, far from driving toward a universal enfranchisement of the poor and oppressed climaxed by common ownership of the means of production, is capitalist in the baldest way.  In how many folktales from around the world does the farm-lad-made-good share his pot of gold with his native village?  On the contrary, he proceeds to buy his way into the very class which once oppressed him, choosing the most beautiful of all the princesses offered by greedy emperors.  Globalist capitalism, especially, which has jettisoned the last relic of obligation to local and inherited values, is really indistinguishable from communism’s international, anti-ethnic ambitions in all the factors that concern this discussion.  Those eager to make political hay from a quick literary harvest should ponder the word “stability” with more attention.

I must also concede that everything to be found under the vast generic aegis of early romance cannot well be presented as affirming communal existence at a deeper level: in every direction, the discussion of genre demands far more amplitude than I have to give it here.  The Golden Ass, for instance, seeks to substitute cult for community, which always suggests that sweeping changes have washed viable communities away.  Pastoral romances of the Daphnis and Chloe stamp (popular not only in late antiquity but also in the late Renaissance: cf. Astrée) had already embraced the shift so familiar to us of glamorizing a primitive life that never really existed.  To adumbrate a truly transitional value system—that is, a system which more properly should be called “median-stable” or “equilibrious” (for Lord is at last right about baggage carried by the word “transition”)—we would probably have to compare medieval Europe with certain periods in Chinese and Indian culture; and for such a comparison, I am wholly unequipped.

I will finish, then, by again warning against the presumption of viewing our own values as having progressively “evolved” from medieval ones.  In a mechanical sense, of course, Western civilization had to write enough, and to prize its writings enough, to give the printing press’s invention an urgency; and upon printed texts would depend the feasibility of science.  I am struck, however, by the degree of morbidity in our own values which may be inferred from a reading of the Eachtra Mhélora.  The work’s two key ethical axes maintain the irresistible power of love and the invincible energy generated by righteous motives.  Both axes are firm—or would be, if we could reconstruct them.  In our own time, marriages fail at a rate of about 50%, and narratives like this one thus seem naïve bedtime stories.  Yet the love of Orlando and Mélora is transacted entirely in a context of things needing to be done and rules having to be observed.  I would venture to say that our own hypertrophic emphasis upon the individual’s finding “self-fulfillment” in every endeavor—upon his or her serving only private goals in the contemporary community’s nonsensical rubble—is a critical factor in our lonely misery.  Were we able to prosecute our love affairs in the light of communal obligations, they would meet with far greater success (even if an obligation or two had to be bent once in a while: for in the pressure of transgression lies the test of conviction).  In the same way, the “chivalry” of choosing the weak side over the strong—of opting for less so that others might have more—may strike us as somewhere between childish and insane.  Yet ample evidence suggests that people who live their lives in such a manner know a much higher degree of happiness than those who “exploit opportunities” to the fullest extent of selfish profit; and one may easily suppose that the former find more courage ready within their hearts during crises than the latter.  A painting cannot be evaluated in a dark hall: neither can a later age fairly reckon the limitations of an earlier age’s values once it can no longer imagine them in practice.

I am sensitive to the irony that I compose these words for the journal of The Center for Literate Values.  The literate life invites a closer and ever closer look, until finally the individual examiner does indeed seem destined to become lost to the greater community.  Yet inasmuch as the literate mind’s incomparable awareness of how things tick offers it more options than the human will has ever enjoyed, a conscious fight against the slide from a morally coherent community into an atomic diversity—a “step back”, if you like—should be available to that mind.  To those who say fatalistically that we cannot go back or utopically that we must not, I would respond that nothing—not even the naïve oralism of Homer, let alone the half-and-half balancing act of the high Middle Ages—could be more inimical to the thinking life than our screen-and-silicon tomorrow threatens to turn.  Of all the stages of human communication, the literate alone is capable of determining what is most humane and noble in each and incorporating its selections in our future.  Actually doing so, one must admit, may prove to be as much of a challenge as raising the dead.



[17] “The Merugud… is a good example of the treatment of classical subjects by the medieval Irish toward the close of the twelfth century” (Robert T. Meyer, Merugud Uilix meic Leirtis, ed. R. T. Meyer [Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1977], xvi).

[18] Michael Sugrue, “Measure, for Measure: The Bible Contra Puritanical Christianity,” Praesidium 8.4 (Fall, 2008), 1-30, observes that Shakespeare had similar problems in publishing the text of Measure for Measure: “The word ‘God’ never appears in the text… as we have it from the First Folio” (7).

[19] My translation from pp. 111-112, sec. 41, of Aided Con Chulainn (72-133) in Compert Con Chulainn and Other Stories, ed. A. G. van Hamel (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968).  The editor considers the text “a fine specimen of an early Modern-Irish story” (vi), though I would place the emphasis on “early”.

[20] Without referring specifically to the matter of manual gestures, the first chapters of Kevin J. Hayes, Folklore and Book Culture (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1997), frequently discuss the fusion of Bible-reading—a “Bible cult”, as one might almost say—with a predominantly oral habit of life in the infancy of the American republic.

[21] P. 268 of William F. Hansen, “Odysseus and the Oar: A Folkloric Approach,” Approaches to Greek Myth, ed. Lowell Edmunds (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990), 241-272.

[22] P. 174 of Stith Thompson, “Myth and Folktales,” Myth: A Symposium, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (Bloomington and London: Indiana UP, 1972), 169-180.

[23] In the Indian Pancatantra (obviously generated by a complexly transitional culture), traditional texts and proverbs are often cited manipulatively by the clever, and figures traditionally reverenced—like Brahmin priests—often play the role of dupe, fool, or do-nothing.

[24] The volume Mac Mic Iascaire Buí Luimnigh was first published in 1909; but Mícheál, as a traditional story-teller, would have heard it much earlier.  The tale was republished in 1992 (Indreabhán, Ireland: Cló Iar-Chonnachta).

[25] Pedersen (ed.), op. cit., 102-115.

[26] In the late twentieth century, consumers of Harlequins and other mass-marketed novels—not to mention avid followers of television serials—were often viewed by the intelligentsia as backward fools held captive by cliché and formula.  While such contemporary entertainments should not lightly be equated with the romance as a genre, it bears noting that the dull folly of which Harlequins and the rest were accused consisted largely of restraining characters within certain moral boundaries no longer much respected in the broader (especially the intellectual) culture.  Even television knelt at respectability’s altar until the arrival of satellite networks, which essentially killed the “classic” weekly serial drama by freeing the industry of any need to mainstream its fare.

[27] A society aquiver within the paranoid conviction that all of its members were thus piratical is precisely the sort of venue where cultic communes spring up in defense, such as we find in late antiquity (most spectacularly among various Christian heresies) and, increasingly, in the contemporary West.



Dr. John Harris is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.  His translation of the early-modern Irish Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando appeared in the previous edition of Praesidium.