Monday, May 14, 2012

Hermeneutics of Consumption in Perceval of Galles

I am looking forward to hearing all about Kalamazoo from Kristi -- so terribly sad to have missed it this year, but the impending move to California made the annual pilgrimage impossible this time around. From the sound of it, the conference was as energizing as ever! I have a feeling that my co-blogger will be posting within the next few days, if not sooner, but in the meanwhile, I thought I'd make a long-overdue contribution . . .

With the looming cross-country move, I'm afraid I haven't had nearly as much time for blogging as I'd hoped for over the past few months.  I have several posts  (currently in nascent form and backlogged given the pre-move insanity) which will soon find their way over here. At the moment, however, my brain is firing in several different directions, which doesn’t make for lucid blogging!  But since I've only been meaning to do this since March, I want to share a paper I presented at this year's NEMLA convention.  Writing it was a somewhat hair-raising experience; deciding to present (and, I'll confess, write) a conference paper just a few days after my dissertation filing deadline might have been more than a bit absurd on my part. Miraculously, however, my paper somehow came together despite the time crunch, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to present in this particular session. The panel, organized by my inimitable co-blogger, Kristi, and the equally lovely Hilarie Lloyd, was both diverse in content and convergent in interests and theme.  I am always amazed by these kinds of sessions. The fact that you can manage to have a papers on a medieval romance, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and victory gardens all speak to each other is nothing short of innervating, and a true testament to how interconnected we can be despite our specializations.

And so, without further ado, the paper!

It’s Not Easy Eating Green: Hermeneutics of Feminine Consumption
in Sir Perceval of Galles.

This map, by Lynton Lamb, appeared on the endpapers to Charles Williams’ first edition of Taliessin Through Logres (1938).

From Charles Williams, edited by David Llewellyn Dodds (Rochester: Boydell, 1991). 

            This map is not medieval, but it resonates with the medieval configuration of women and women’s bodies in the text I’ll be discussing here.  It appeared as the endpapers to a 1938 poetry collection entitled Taliessin Through Logres by Charles Williams, a member of the famed Inklings and one with a keen investment in things Arthurian. Here you can find the map of Europe, superimposed by a woman’s body.  At the head, we have England, the seat of Arthurian power, and further down, we have Jerusalem in a place would be more shocking if it didn’t align so neatly with medieval configurations of the Holy City as the navel of the world.  This map – however unwittingly – encapsulates the relationship between feminized corporeal and terrestrial bodies in Sir Perceval of Galles, one that directly informs and is informed by the instances of ingestion that occur throughout the narrative.

This paper comes out of a larger discussion in my dissertation about the emblematic roles that women play in late middle English romances, especially those concerned with aspects of crusade and recovery (of territory and from various kinds of trauma).  The Middle English romance Sir Perceval of Galles relies on imbricated levels of recovery for its narrative momentum, many of which hinge on the comingling of female bodies and the landscapes they inhabit.  Both bodies (corporeal and terrestrial) are inextricably bound to one another in this romance. Their relationship is established in its very first lines, and reinforced throughout Perceval’s martial defense of a placed called “Maydenlande” – a region whose very name alludes in a charmingly obvious way to the symbolic relationship between female bodies and feminized landscapes.  The scene that seals this relationship, however, involves a strange act of ingestion, involving one of the most pivotal women in the text — Perceval’s mother — consuming nothing but grass and water; consuming, in essence, the very thing that defines her worth and the worth of the other women in her society.  Her eating seeks a tacit reversal of the established association of female bodies with territory, but in the end her eating only reinscribes her in that very circuit of symbolic value.  
The significance of this passage only becomes clear through the establishment of symbolic female bodies earlier in the romance, and so I’ll begin my discussion by providing you with a brief summary. The Middle-English Sir Perceval of Galles is, by all accounts, focused on male action. It centers on the exploits of Perceval, a young man raised in the wilderness by a mother afraid of the dangers of chivalric society (which press men into armed conflict and which resulted in the death of her husband).  Perceval grows curious about the broader world, and eventually abandons his mother to enter society.  He fails on numerous occasions to read the world correctly, inexperienced as he is with its nuances.  He learns slowly, but gradually, how to acculturate himself, and develops from a “fool of the field” who mistakes a pregnant mare for a destrier to one of Arthur’s elite knights and a king in his own right.  His mother, largely absent from the story, looms in the recesses of Perceval’s developing identity, however, and he eventually embarks on a quest to recover her.
Scholars have often remarked that this version of Perceval’s story lacks the very thing that defines its source text. Chretien’s Conte du Graal, is, after all, dominated by Perceval’s Grail quest and all of its failures.  Here, however — to draw on an observation of Russell Peck’s — Perceval’s mother, and his sense of home, becomes his grail.  His redemptive and penitential quest to recover her becomes the final feat he must accomplish before he can end his life fighting in the Holy Land as a crusader.  Women, then, play a significant role in the romance, even if their “screen-time” remains remarkably brief.
Perceval of Galles begins with the marriage of the eponymous hero’s parents, an event that establishes the interconnectedness of feminized bodies in the romance. King Arthur gives his sister Acheflour in marriage to a knight, confusingly named Perceval as well.  This passage makes clear, however, that this marriage comes with more than just a bride:
Tharefore Kyng Arthoure
Dide hym mekill honoure:
He gaffe hym his syster Acheflour,
   To have and to holde
Fro thethyn till his lyves ende,
With brode londes to spende,
For he the knyght wele kende. (21-27)

[Therefore King Arthur did (Sir Perceval) much honor: he gave him his sister Acheflour, to have and to hold, from thence until his life's end, with broad lands to use, for he knew the knight well.]

The wedding then, connects the bride to the land by making a marriage with her synonymous with territorial acquisition.  Perceval Sr., in the lines that follow, journeys to the church to — as the narrator tells us – marry the woman and “win gifts that were good” — yet another reminder that this marriage indelibly ties women to the tangible goods that they bring into a marriage.
            This dynamic is revisited in the middling portion of the romance, as the young Perceval wages a war against a Sultan, who threatens to overtake a region called Maydenlande.  Throughout this episode, Lufamore — the besieged ruler of Maydelande — is consistently bound (both literally and figuratively) to her territory.  The sultan, for instance, seizes her lands, and — wishing to claim her body as well — forces her to retreat into her castle while he lays a siege (977-1000).   Lufamore herself enacts this binding of territorial and corporeal bodies by stating that whoever rescues her will "hafe this kyngdome and me, / To welde at his will” (1339-1340).  Her desire to ensure that the right man gains control over her and her lands trumps any desires for continued autonomy on her part; she finds herself in control, after all, only because her brothers, her father, and her uncle have already been killed by the sultan. 
            The invading Saracen army directly threatens the Christian landscape in ways that are directly linked to rape. As the messenger tells Perceval:
Up resyn es a Sowdane:
Alle hir landes hase he tane;
So byseges he that woman
   That scho may hafe no pese."

He sayse that scho may have no pese,
The lady, for hir fayrenes,
And for hir mekill reches.
   "He wirkes hir full woo;
He dose hir sorow all hir sythe,
And all he slaes doun rythe;
He wolde have hir to wyfe,
   And scho will noghte soo.
Now hase that ilke Sowdane
Hir fadir and hir eme slane,
And hir brethir ilkane,
   And is hir moste foo.
So nere he hase hir now soughte
That till a castelle es scho broghte,
And fro the walles will he noghte,
   Ere that he may hir too.    (977-96)

["Uprisen is a sultan, all her lands has he taken; he so besieges that woman that she may have no peace." He says that she may have no peace, the lady, because of her fairness, and because of her great riches.  "He works her full woe; he does her sorrow all her days, and everyone he slays straight away.  He would have her to wife, and would not so. Now has the Sultan her father and her uncle slain, and each of her brothers, and (he) is her greatest enemy.  So closely he has pursued her now that she has been brought to a castle, and he will not leave the walls until he might take her.]

The verb “to take” appears frequently in this passage, and it is one that was regularly used in medieval literature to refer both to the wrongful acquisition of land and to rape.  The consistent use of this word in the passage renders coterminous the bodies threatened by the sultan.
            His actions require swift martial — and marital — action, and Percival brashly charges to the rescue as soon as he hears word of the sultan’s invasion.  That the contested territory is called Maydenlande firmly solders the female and territorial bodies in the text, because it recalls all that a knight such as Perceval can hope to win in the course of chivalric adventures: lands, a wife, and a heritage. But it also signals the obligations a knight has to protecting pure and untouched female bodies. As a result, the name inspires the urgency of Perceval’s quest, actualizing his chivalric potential in the process.  Perceval almost single handedly routes the Saracen army, beheads the sultan, and subsequently wins the hand of Lufamour. They are married almost immediately afterwards. As the narrator tells us: 
            Now has Perceval the brave
            Wedded Lufamour the bright
            And is  king full right
            Of all that broad land. (1745-48).

Like the marriage of Perceval’s parents that beings the romance, this description links the woman — in this case Lufamour — with the land itself. Their marriage, in sum, is important in no small part because of the territory and knightly/kingly accouterments Perceval acquires though her.
            After his full instatement into chivalric and Arthurian society, Perceval’s thoughts eventually wind his way to his mother, who as we discover, has been living on a diet of grass and water in the woods:
He thoghte on no thyng,
Now on his moder that was,
How scho levyde with the gres,
With more drynke and lesse,
   In welles, there thay spryng.

Drynkes of welles, ther thay spryng,
And gresse etys, withowt lesyng!
Scho liffede with none othir thyng
   In the holtes hare. (1772-80)

[He thought on nothing, not at all on his mother, how she lived upon the grass, with more drink and less from wells that sprang. (She) drinks from wells, that spring there, eats grass without ceasing! So she lived on no other thing, in the gray woods.]

He grows concerned for his mother’s well-being and laments that he left her “manless” in the forest.  As he discovers, her situation is dire indeed. She has gone mad with grief; the sultan’s brother, the Giant Gollerothirame, attempted to woo her with Perceval’s ring, causing her to assume that her son is dead.  While her insanity is not directly associated with her ingestion of the earth, retreating to the wilderness in medieval literature is often configured as a descent into madness.  Her flight to the forest with the young Perceval at the outset of the romance because of her fears of chivalric violence invite such associations, and her diet of earth and water alone is, I argue, a uniquely feminine iteration of madness in the romance, and one that seeks to reverse the significations at play earlier in the narrative.
Her consumption of the earth attempts (inadvertently) to reverse the previously established association of female bodies with territory.  Whereas the land serves as a signifier of the woman’s societal worth, here the mother seeks autonomy over the land that has defined her existence by becoming its devourer.  She tries, through this act of consumption, to transform herself into a signifier rather than one signified, reversing in essence the circuit of value into which she, and the other women in the romance, have heretofore been inscribed.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has appropriated Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of posthuman bodies to explain the relationship between knights and their horses.  In essence, he argues that the two co-create and perform a so-called inhuman circuit, a “strange assemblage” in which identity and form are inextricably interlinked, where “no possibility of concrete embodiment” can be found and where the “best analysis can only map movements” ("The Inhuman Circuit," 172).  I would like to offer here that Perceval’s mother, in her eating of earth and water, creates a parallel inhuman circuit.  But whereas the relationship between man and horse is an inherently active one, the relationship between woman and land is deeply and inexorably passive.  Its circuitry requires dominion.  And so, while Acheflour, in a presumably maddened state, hungers for a reversal of this cyclic system of worth, her symbolic ingestion can only backfire.  In the end, it only literalizes her body’s indelible connection to the land and the requirements of masculine rule and protection that are also bound to it.
As I already mentioned, Perceval embarks on his journey to find his mother out of concerns that she lives “manless” in the woods.  Her unusual appetites and rejections (of traditional demarcations of identity and worth, but also of civilization) ultimately requires the entrance of a male who can restore proper order. In the world of Perceval of Galles  both female and territorial bodies require protection and governance, benefits that Perceval actively denied his mother when he abandoned her in the forest.  Their eventual reunion, her subsequent recovery from madness, and their return to society (to Perceval’s kingdom in Maydenlande) signals both the mother's return to her rightful place and status, but also the reinscription of the feminine into the culture and the lands that define her worth.  It also enacts a form of domestic recovery that parallels and facilitates Perceval’s crusading.
            This feminized inhuman circuit, then, primarily endorses the value of the male’s chivalric identity.  Acheflour’s aberrant appetites for reversal and for agency are cut short through her son’s rescue and, compellingly, through another act of ingestion:
The geant had a drynk wroghte,
The portere sone it forthe broghte,
For no man was his thoghte
   Bot for that lady.
Thay wolde not lett long thon,
Bot lavede in hir with a spone.
Then scho one slepe fell also sone,
   Reght certeyne in hy.
Thus the lady there lyes
Thre nyghttis and thre dayes,
And the portere alwayes
   Lay wakande hir by.

Thus the portare woke hir by -
Ther whills hir luffed sekerly, -
Till at the laste the lady
   Wakede, als I wene.
Then scho was in hir awenn state
And als wele in hir gate
Als scho hadde nowthir arely ne late
   Never therowte bene.
Thay sett tham down one thaire kne,
Thanked Godde, alle three,
That he wolde so appon tham see
   As it was there sene.
Sythen aftir gan thay ta
A riche bathe for to ma,
And made the lady in to ga,
   In graye and in grene. (2245-70)
  [The giant had made a drink, the porter soon brought it forth, for he thought on no one except that lady. They did not wait long then, but poured the liquid in her with a spoon, right certainly in haste. Thus the lady laid there, three nights and three days, and the porter always lay watching by her. Thus the porter watched beside her — because he loved her truly — until at last the lady woke, as I understand. Then she was in her own state, and as well in her normal way as she had been neither early nor late.  They set them down on their knees and thanked God, all three, that He would look upon them so, as it was there to see. Then after they prepared a rich bath, and made the lady go into it, in gray and in grene.] 

Perceval brings his mother to a castle after finding her in the forest, and the porter supplies a magical elixir, which he and Perceval promptly pour down her throat.  She sleeps for three nights and three days, with the porter watching over her every moment. When she wakes she is described as being “in her own state . . . as she had neither formerly nor recently been before.”  This drink, created, supplied, and administered by males, permanently erases any attempts of autonomy created by the mother’s previous acts of consumption, and it also literalizes her inscription into the very system she had attempted to break.  That she is placed in Maydenlande with her daughter-in-law Lufamore in the closing lines of the romance, then, completes her reinstatement in the feminized inhuman circuit of the romance.
            Acts of ingestion in this romance are ones that seek either to affirm or deny the coterminous nature of feminized corporeal and terrestrial bodies and their ties to those who would govern them.  Threatening forms of consumption exist as well, in the form of the Sultan cast as a literal and figurative rapist (of lands and of territory), and in his brother, the Giant Gollerothirame, who causes Acheflour to go mad with grief by attempting to woo her with her son’s ring (which he procured through a complicated series of events).  Women’s bodies are synchronously aligned with the lands that they intrinsically promise to the men in this romance world, and Achefloure’s attempts to short-circuit her ties to that society in the end only inscribe her more deeply into that symbolic system.  Like Charles William’s drawing, her body becomes a chivalric roadmap — it gives birth to a hero and must be rescued by a hero, and any attempts to break it free will ultimately prove fruitless.
The romance’s consistent return to the coterminous nature of feminine and territorial bodies informs Perceval's development as a knight and as a crusader.  It inspires and legitimizes his desires to protect women while actualizing his social ascension from an outsider to a king and favored member of Arthur's court. By feminizing its landscapes, this romance amplifies the hero’s obligations to protect them in ways that prefigure and enhance the prestige of his final crusade in the Holy Land.  In this way, Sir Perceval of Galles literalizes the symbolic implications of female bodies and their consumptive powers as starkly as William’s map, demonstrating women in this romance are figures superimposed but also forever bound to, the lands that they inhabit.


  1. Hello there! I am a Charles Williams scholar, working on the Arthurian poetry, so I was thrilled to find your discussion here (along with Lynton Lamb's map). Perhaps we could share ideas?

  2. @Iambic: I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed the paper, and I'd be delighted to share ideas! Are you on twitter by chance? You can find me by searching for "Leila K. Norako." If so, we can direct message our respective email addresses that way. I'm a bit leery of posting my address here due to rampant spammers. Looking forward to chatting with you in more detail!


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