Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Musings on Eyrbyggja saga

As promised in my last blog post, I've decided to post brief reflections after I finish reading a given saga. I was midway through Eyrbyggja saga when I started this particular reading challenge, and I finished it right before the quarter started at Stanford. I had every intention to write about it immediately, but the past six weeks have been a blur (however innervating), and my saga reading and blogging have taken a bit of a nose-dive in the process. With the start of National Academic Writing Month (or #AcWriMo), however, I've vowed to publish at least three times here at In Romaunce (in addition to tying the bow on a couple of projects). And so, without further ado, I'll offer up a few speculative musings on this particular saga.

It's rapidly become a favorite of mine for a few reasons:

1) It's packed to the gills with vengeful draugr. Thorolf Lame-foot, for instance, haunts the hills around Hvamm, causing -- among other things -- cows to "moo" themselves to death. He kills so many livestock (and people, but the text spends far more time describing the cows) that his son Arnkel has him reinterred at a place eventually dubbed Lame-foot hill, and said son builds a wall around the cairn so high that only birds can fly over it. The narrator tells us, at this point, that he rests in peace for the rest of Arnkel's life.

2) It includes perhaps the greatest scatological kenning in the history of kennings: álfrek, which means "elf-frighteners."

3) It includes a seal revenant. And yes. You did read that correctly. The episode is so spectacularly odd that I feel absolutely compelled to share it with you here:
During the winter just before Yule, Thorodd the farmer went out to Nes to fetch his dried fish. There were six men altogether in the ten-oared boat, and they spent the night out there. The same night that Thorodd had left, when the people at Froda came up to the fireside that evening, they saw a seal's head coming up out of the fireplace. One of the servants saw it first when she came in. She took a club that was inside the doorway and struck the seal on the head. But the seal rose up with the blow and reared up towards Thorgunna's bed-curtains. Then one of Thorodd's men went up and started beating the seal, but with every blow it rose up further until its flippers appeared, and then the man fell down unconscious. Everyone else who was present became very frightened.
     Then the boy Kjartan rushed forward and lifted up an iron sledgehammer and brought it down on the seal's head. It was a tremendous blow, but the seal just shook its head and looked around. Kjartan kept going, with blow after blow, and the seal went back down as if he were driving a nail. He kept beating until the seal went so far down that he hammered the floor over its head. And so it went on throughout the winter, with all the revenants fearing Kjartan the most. (Chapter 53). 
4) The fact that everyone (seriously, EVERYONE) is named after Thor. This is fascinating given that the saga begins with Thorolf Moster-beard relocating from Norway to Iceland and, once he settles on the Snaefellsness peninsula, rebuilds the temple to Thor (which he had overseen in his homeland) on Helgafell. This description of a pagan temple is a rarity in Old Norse literature, and the frequency with which Thor is evoked in this saga (mainly through nomenclature) certainly indicates his sustained popularity among this particular group of settlers. But it also makes it damned near impossible to keep everyone straight. Case in point:
He married Astrid, who was the daughter of Hrolf the hersir and the sister of Steinold the Short, and they had three children. Their son was Thorgrim the Godi and their daughter Gerd was married to Thormod the Godi, the son of Odd the Bold . . . . In his old age, Thorolf Moster-beard married a woman named Unn. Some people say she was the daughter of Thorstein the Red, but Ari Thorgilsson the Learned does not count her among his children. Thorolf and Unn had a son named Stein, whom Thorolf dedicated to his friend Thor, calling him Thorstein. The boy matured very quickly. Hallstein Thorolfsson married Osk, the daughter of Thorstein the Red. Their son was also named Thorstein, and he was fostered by Thorolf. Thorolf called him Thorstein Surt (Black) and his own son Thorstein Cod-biter. . . . (Chapter 7)
I rest my case.

5) The tendency of the characters to burst in to magnificently gory skaldic verse. Case in point:
I had to defend myself
against the valkyrie's derision:
the dart-of-wounds was driven,
and the raven delighted in gore.
When the sword of my father's son
rang against helmets in the field,
gashes spurted blood
and wound-streams ran. (Chapter 19.8)
Every time I read a saga, a not-so-small part of me wishes I lived in a world where bursting into opaquely metaphorical poetry was a perfectly normal way of expressing oneself.

All mirth and snark aside,  I plan to keep musing and writing on these aspects in the weeks and months ahead. This saga has, for instance, inspired a deep fascination with the way in which draugr function in Old Icelandic sagas, and once I surface from my current deluge of projects, I vow to do some research to figure out what fellow scholars have said about them. I have a feeling someone has to have done work in this area already, but I was particularly struck by how a draugr's presence seems to parallel/mirror the bloody conflicts that permeate a good deal of the saga's narrative action.

For now though, I want to spend a bit of time musing on the way in which ice functions in the text.
As I read the saga, I found myself fascinated by the persistent presence of ice in the saga, and the role it seems to play in anticipating, facilitating, and ultimately halting, the violence and feuding at the heart of this particular story.

The first significant reference to ice occurs in Chapter 40. Thorodd and Thorgrima Magic-Cheek attempt to thwart Bjorn's affair with Froda because Thorodd fears the dangers of Bjorn's continued association with her:
. . . but when he left to go home that evenings, the sky was overcast and it had started to rain, and he was rather late getting going. By the time he came up to the heath, the weather had turned very cold and there were snowdrifts. It was so dark that he could not see the path in front of him. After that a blizzard blew up with so much force that he could hardly stand up. His clothes, which were soaked through, began to freeze, and he had completely lost his bearings and did not know which way he was going. He came upon a cave jutting out of the land, and went into it to shelter for the night, but it was a cold campsite. (146)
Bjorn spends three miserable days in the cave — even composing an angsty poem about his experience — and decides to spend the rest of the winter at home after the storm abates. By implication then, Thorodd successfully halts Bjorn's pursuit of Thurid (at least for a time), one that would have easily led to feuding had it continued.

Another vivid description of ice occurs in Chapter 45, where a pivotal battle between Steinthor and his men and the Thorbrandssons occur Hofstadir bay, which had frozen over:
Hofstadir bay was completely frozen over right out to Bakki the Greater, so they walked across the ice and on over the isthmus to Vigrafjord, which was also entirely iced over. In that fjord the water ebbed all the way out until it was dry, so that the ice rested on mud at low-tide, and the rocks in the fjord jutted up out of the ice, which was broken up around them. There were a lot of uneven ice floes past the rocks, and powdery snow had fallen over the ice, making it very slippery. (Chapter 45)
The battle that ensues is brutal to say the least, and the narrator describes in detail how the iced-over bay makes for an environment by turns ideal and treacherous. Ice-sheets pushed up near a large rock make for good cover, for instance, but the ice's slipperiness makes for a difficult and slower battle. Interestingly, this battle serves as a follow-up to a major skirmish at Alftafjord. After this battle on the ice, the wounds and deaths from both sides are tallied up and -- given the roughly equal number of wounds and deaths on each side -- a settlement is reached that lasts for as long as Steinthor and Snorri the Godi live. This battle on the ice, by implication, ultimately allows for a crucial truce to occur.  Ice, then, acts in a strange way as an agent of circuitous/indirect peace-making.

Ice plays a final, significant role in Chapter 61, where another frozen bay forces Snorri to hold off on retaliating against Ospak (a marauding Norseman) and his band. But while it prevents Snorri from waging open war, it doesn't prevent him from summoning a supernatural ally, Thrand. Described as a former heathen and shape-shifter, Thrand makes his way through the snowy and icy terrain at a preternaturally fast pace once he receives Snorri's summons, and he proves a pivotal member of the band that eventually defeats Ospak and his men. In this passage, then, treacherous and icy landscapes force Snorri into the role of strategist rather than retaliator, and the waiting Snorri has to do seems to contribute rather directly to his victory.

Moving forward, I'm curious to see how ice and snow are represented in other sagas. The vividness of these rimy landscapes struck me unusual, because the sagas (at least in my current understanding) tend to leave a surprising amount unsaid when it comes to describing the landscapes in which these narratives occur. There's nary a mention of a volcano, for instance, and references to glaciers seem to be relatively few and far between as well. Like the draugr that populate the narrative, these landscapes -- when they are described in any detail -- seem to offer up some kind of tacit commentary on the feuding that takes place upon them. The kind of ice described, after all, is impermanent and seasonal, and so too, the saga narrator implies, are the resolutions and truces that are made in the snow or on the ice. Perhaps the harsh, hibernal setting emphasizes this point (one that the saga makes again and again) — and this possibility leaves me wondering how other saga landscapes might be made to reflect and anticipate the events that take place upon them. On a related note, I'm likewise intrigued by the frequency with which violent encounters take place on or around Yule in this saga (yet another thing to research and explore further), and I wonder whether the linkage is unique to this saga or whether it's part of a broader tradition (and, if it is, what that might signify/suggest). Certainly things to keep investigating in the weeks and months ahead!

Next up on the reading list: Gísla saga and Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, given that both occur on or near to the Snaefellsness Peninsula as well.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A year (and a half) of saga reading begins . . . NOW.

My parents (who know me so very, very well) recently sent this incredibly thoughtful and generous gift to me for my birthday: 

Since traveling to Iceland in 2006, I've acquired an ever-increasing interest in the country and its literature. I have vivid memories of wandering around the Culture House during that initial visit, marveling over the stunning manuscripts on display and by the fact that modern Icelandic is in many ways merely an upgraded version of the language in which the sagas were written (I was told, at the time, that there exists a greater difference between Shakespearean English and modern English -- quite remarkable, given the centuries that lie between the composition of these sagas and today). And when I visited Iceland again in 2009 (the Snaefellsness peninsula in particular), I was struck by the way in which the sagas are evoked. It seemed that everywhere I looked, I found placards retelling or quoting passages from sagas that took place in those particular areas. I don't know when I've seen a nation's literature etched so lovingly into its terrain. 

I've read several sagas over the years, but have always found myself amazed by their vast quantity and the sheer number of them I have yet to explore. I've also become increasingly drawn to the sagas of Icelanders specifically because of my burgeoning interest in world-building; as I mentioned a while back, I had the immense privilege of organizing a roundtable on medieval world-building as one of BABEL's sessions at this past Kalamazoo. To my delight, the session was very well-received, and I am now in the process of assembling a special volume on the topic for postmedieval (due out in early 2018). As the editor of the volume, I'll be writing a general introduction, and I'm leaning towards using the Icelandic sagas as a starting point. Because, as the editors of this collection point out:
. . . the world of the sagas and the tales is a unified whole in several senses. They belong to the same geographical setting and tell of a particular period in history. They also share a recognizable narrative technique, although individual sagas often differ sharply in style and content. Each saga highlights various aspects of this common world and presents it from an individual perspective. (1.xv)
Needless to say, I'm especially eager to explore more of the Icelandic sagas in light of this project. I want to see firsthand how world-building occurs in these narratives and how the aforementioned consistency can be born out of the work of numerous (almost entirely anonymous) authors and copyists. I was, as a result, beyond thrilled to receive this gift. It feels like it weighs a good ten pounds more than my daughter, and it contains all of the sagas that focus predominately on Icelanders. When I opened the gift and promptly called my parents to thank them, I learned that my dad had also purchased a copy for himself; we all traveled to Iceland together so that they could do some sight-seeing and also help out and visit with their grandbaby while I attended the NCS conference, and my dad and I had an array of wonderful conversations about medieval Iceland and saga literature while there.

So, upon learning that he has a copy of his own, I issued the following challenge: that we would read the collection in its entirety by Christmas 2015. He enthusiastically accepted the challenge, so the game is on! 

All of which is to say that you, oh intrepid readers, will be hearing a lot about medieval Iceland between now and December of next year. My plan, at least as it stands right now, is to write at least a brief entry on each saga as I finish them. Currently up: Eyrbyggja saga, which includes tales of cow-killing revenants, witches, and "elf-frighteners." More on all of that later! 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Chaucer and Vanishing Ice: A partial retrospective of NCS 2014

Jökulsárlón (March, 2006).
I have so much to say about my recent trip to Iceland — and about the marvelous New Chaucer Society conference I attended there — that I barely know where to begin. My fondness for this particular gathering of medievalists seems to amplify with each successive conference, and so much of what I said about the Portland gathering certainly rings true here as well: that as a fairly recent Ph.D. who, until just two months prior to NCS found herself still in the yawning realm of job contingency, this conference — given and its assemblage of so many kind-hearted and enthusiastic colleagues and friends — always seems to innervate me when I need it most. There are so many parts of the trip and the conference that I want to write about — from the magnificent Settlement Museum, to the stark beauty of the Icelandic countryside, to the deep intellectual and personal generosity of colleagues and friends, to the joys and challenges of traveling to a foreign country and a conference with a three month old — but for now, I'll limit myself to the topic of ice. 

Jökulsárlón (March, 2006)
I was thrilled to be a part of Jeffrey Cohen's Ice sessions at this particular gathering, in no small part because I've found myself fascinated and in awe of Iceland's glaciers ever since I first caught glimpses of them during my 2006 trip to the country. They loomed in the distance as the Flybus hurtled down the road from the airport to Reykjavík, and they towered over us magnificently as Robbie and I careened around the Ring Road from Reykjavík to Skaftafell National Park and back (over a period of a few days, of course!). I remember being simultaneously awestruck by the immensity of Skaftafellsjökull and alarmed by how much the glacier had retreated over the past few decades. I vividly remember ambling along the edge of Jökulsárlón, marveling at the eery quiet, the otherworldly blue hues of the ice, and the seals that frolicked between the icebergs.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of glacial ice, however, is of the lagoon at Gígjökull, one of Eyjafjallajökull's outlet glaciers. We scampered on top of icebergs encased in the frozen waters and hiked to the edge of the glacier itself.  The snow-coated landscape could not have been more gorgeous -- I even recall our guide, Kristin, matter-of-factly assuring us that heaven would be at least this beautiful. But I also remember being stunned to hear Kristin say that, just fifty years prior, the glacier extended far past the edge of the lagoon itself. I thought I heard him wrong at first. "Surely," I thought, "he said five hundred years." I simply couldn't wrap my head around that much vanished ice.

The Gígjökull lagoon, as I will always remember it.
I have an immense fondness for that lagoon and for the hours that we spent in awe of both its stark beauty and its ephemerality. And so, I was more than a little saddened when I learned from Oddur (the glaciologist who participated in the Ice sessions at this years NCS gathering) that the lagoon (featured right) was obliterated when the now infamous volcano under Eyjafjallajökull erupted back in 2010. I'm fairly certain, in fact, that this video captures its destruction; you can also see current photos of the location here. Saddened as I was to hear of the lagoon's extinction, its swift demise brought home to me the volatility of Iceland's landscape, and of how a glaciers can act as both its creator and destroyer. In this way, my brief conversation with Oddur anticipated what so many of us evoked in our papers: that glacial ice remains a dangerous and remarkable substance — but also a deeply imperiled — substance. After all, as Jeffrey stated in his introductory remarks, Iceland's glaciers will cease to exist in two hundred years' time — a span that, by all accounts, is but a geological blink of the eye. 

Jeffrey has already summarized each of our papers in his post about the sessions, so I won't repeat that work here, but what I will say is how struck I was by the ways in which our papers intersected with one another and how our ensuing conversations encouraged me to revisit certain aspects of my own speculations. Case in point: I asked in my own paper how deft of a reader Geoffrey (HoF's narrator) can possibly be if he can't figure out, and quickly, that he's climbing all over a massive rock of ice.  Dan Remein pointed out, however, that it can be startlingly easy to mistake parts of a glacier for rock when one is climbing upon it — something he discovered while on our group's glacier hike the previous day. Perhaps, then, Geoffrey's not a bad reader -- just a confused one! As an aside, Dan's observation, born out of the visceral experiences of the day prior, truly brought home how essential that glacier hike was to our session; and for that reason I do hope, like Jeffrey, that more of us will consider taking these kinds of interdisciplinary turns in our work -- especially at conferences, which are by their very nature designed us to present exploratory works-in-progress.

During the Q&A, Dave Hadbawnik asked about the indeterminacy of the House of Fame's foundation (is it made or is it natural? certainly a question to keep musing upon as I work on this nascent topic), while another attendee asked about the likeliness/possibility of Chaucer having ever seen a glacier on his travels and what that question might mean for an "icy" reading of the poem. Regarding the latter, the matter of imagination was offered up -- the notion that if modern day scientists can imagine what other kinds of ice are possible (at, say, the center of the earth or on distant planets), certainly Chaucer could have conjured up an imagined glacier having only heard of one. And towards the end of our second Ice session, Karl Steel asked us to comment on the risks of giving ice a privileged ontological position. I appreciated that question very much, because it forced me to ask myself whether there was anything arbitrary in my approach to HoF. Was I, in other words, randomly privileging a particular object and, in the process, forcing an otherwise untenable reading out of the poem? I think that Karl's question is an important one to keep asking myself as I continue to examine potentially agential objects in Chaucer's works. At the same time, though, my sensing was that our sessions, didn't afford any undue privilege to ice but rather encouraged us to scrutinize references that all too often go unnoticed and, in the process, see what happens to the texts in question when we do so.

And so, in that spirit, I'll offer up my paper:

"Vanishing Ice and The House of Fame: An Ecocritical Interrogation"

In this talk, I want to consider ice-as-agent in House of Fame. What does it mean for ice to have agency in this poem? How does ice fit within the ecological framework of The House of Fame? And what happens when we consider the agential force of Ice in House of Fame alongside images of moving, melting glaciers? While many scholars have explored the poem’s emphasis on poetic creativity and limitation, reading ice as an agential object (rather than as a mere descriptive feature) might offer an interpretation of the poem that more accurately captures its persistent enjambment of the non-human with the human. The powerful presence of ice in The House of Fame reminds us that, while the poem concerns itself in vibrant ways with human stories and objects, there exists in tandem to the manmade a force that (however glacial its movements or its meltings) may ultimately get the last word.

Ásbyrgi. Photo by Mats Wibe Lund (www.mats.is)
But let’s talk for a moment about glaciers and their creative movements.  In the north of Iceland lies Ásbyrgi, a canyon carved out by one (possibly two) enormous jökulhlaup — flashfloods born of subglacial volcanic eruptions — at Vatnajökull during the last ice age. The eruptions, which took place under the mighty Vatnajokull, instantly melted a tremendous amount of ice, and the resulting flashfloods violently carved out the canyon in a matter of days. The canyon is approximately three kilometers long and one hundred meters high at its deepest point. Vatnajökull itself lies far to the southeast, and covers almost eight percent of Iceland’s landmass. It is parent to over thirty outlet glaciers, and you can reach one of them, Skaftafellsjökull, by a scenic and sobering hike. Along the path, stakes labeled by decade mark the points where the glacier used to reach. And in the background, where there arrow is located, you can see the glacier itself. The amount of absent ice attested by these posts is simply staggering, almost as staggering as the massive expanse of land carved out in its wake, or the stones in the valley that lay split like hardboiled eggs from the immense pressure of the now-absent glacial mass. These spaces stand as quiet, looming memorials to the power and the impermanence of ice. 

Ice, by its very nature, is liminal, and its liminality likely contributed to Chaucer’s decision to perch his House of Fame upon it. The palace sits, after all, “in myddes of the weye / betwixen” heaven, earth, and the sea — an allusion, perhaps, to the vaporous, solid, and liquid forms that water can take. The melting of the building’s glacial foundation, in all of its inexorability, consistently threatens its existence and the stories preserved in its walls. Like the Mississippi River described by Jeffrey Cohen in Prismatic Ecologies, ice is an “earth artist,” “its projects tak[ing] so long to execute that humans have a difficult time discerning their genius” (xix). This very problem of perception certainly plagues our narrator in HoF. Consider, for instance, how he struggles to identify what kind of [CUE] “rock” the HoF is built upon:

But up I clomb with alle payne,
And though to clymbe it greved me,
Yit I ententyf was to see,
And for to powren wonder lowe,
Yf I koude any weyes knowe
What maker stoon this roche was.
For hyt was lyke alum de glas,
But that hyt shoon ful more clere;
But of what congealed matere
Hyt was, I nyste redely.
But at the laste aspied I,
And found that it was every del
A roche of yse, and not of steel.
Thought I, "By Seynt Thomas of Kent,
This were a feble fundament
To bilden on a place hye.
He ought him lytel glorifye
That hereon bilt, God so me save!" 
-- House of Fame, 1118-35

It takes him sixteen lines-worth of musing to figure out that the “rock” is actually ice, which certainly brings into question (given that he’s climbing all over it) how adept he is at reading his surroundings (i.e. couldn’t he feel that it was cold?).

Consider as well how he struggles to understand why it’s built on ice in the first place. He criticizes the builder — essentially calling him/her a fool — and then ponders over the names etched on one of the foundation’s walls that have all but melted away. He seems reassured, however, by the castle, which,  as he describes it, seems to protect one of the walls from the melting effects of the heat (lines 1136-64). I think, however, that HoF invites its audience to see Geoffrey’s shortcomings in this very analysis. For as Bernd Herzogenrath observes, ice is “a shapeshifter” “prone to powerful expansion.” And while humans might not be able to see that expansion take place, the fact remains that all ice, even the glacial foundation of HoF, is forever on the move.

Geoffrey’s initial lamentation over the feebleness of the House of Fame's foundation is, then, the more accurate of his two observations. But it seems to be one that Geoffrey cannot sustain, because to do so would be to admit how much of human ingenuity and accomplishment lie at the mercy of the natural world.  A message that these images* of moving and melting glaciers certainly bring home to us in vital ways. Our narrator may largely assume that ice can be managed by manmade forces, but the fact remains that The House of Fame — and all that it seems to represent and contain — remains forever at the mercy of the foundation upon which it has been built. Human achievement and existence are, by extension, forever at the mercy of the non-human. Ice, then, becomes the primary agential object in HoF, quietly moving, melting, threatening the collapse of all that humans seek to build upon it. Our narrator’s description of the House of Fame and its glacial foundation, then, ruefully reveals the limits of human perception, especially of our ability to read the movements of the natural world and measure our power over it with complete accuracy.

By foregrounding a vibrant ecology with ice as the primary agential object and mover, HoF invites us to reflect upon the tensions between nature and culture that Lisa Kiser sees in Parliament of Fowles, and also invites us to reconsider the limits of human sensory perception. John Muir, the great American naturalist, encountered glaciers in sensual ways not all that removed from Geoffrey in this poem. He saw and embraced them as “vibrating, vibrant things” (to paraphrase Lowell Duckert) and Geoffrey, at least for a brief moment, acknowledges them as such (an admission that I think audiences are meant to keep firmly in mind even if the poem’s narrator cannot). In this way, HoF, through its positioning of ice as the unstable foundation upon which all human achievement is laid to rest, reminds us of a truth that Muir heard echoing through an Alaskan glacier — that “the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation.”** Thank You.

*In the actual presentation, I showed excerpts from James Balog's time-lapse photography, which he showcased in both his TED talk and the documentary Chasing Ice. I selected two clips: one of Sólheimajökull (the glacier on which many of my fellow panelists hiked the day before), and one of the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland. You can find them in this video, which is worth watching in its entirety in order to get a sense of Balog's project and the staggering amount of vanished glacial ice across our planet. 

**I owe a debt of gratitude to Lowell Duckert, whose article "Glacier" introduced me to Muir's description of the Alaskan glacier. 


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 

Duckert, Lowell. “Glacier.” postmedieval 4.1 (2013): 68-79.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. “White.” In Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Kiser, Lisa J. “Chaucer and the Politics of Nature.” In Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. Eds. Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 2001, 41-56. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Like Sun on a Troll's Back: Tales of Iceland and the New Chaucer Society Congress

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja
This summer I had the chance to visit Iceland for the Nineteenth Biennial International Congress of the New Chaucer Society. I am still processing the experiences I had, which loom like fantastical peaks in my memory. I went a week ahead of the conference so that I would have time to explore Reykjavik and spend some time in the surrounding country as well. As the conference grew nearer, I began to run into more and more familiar faces around the city, and it was exciting to feel that sense of connectedness in this beautiful new place. The conference was fantastic. I heard excellent papers and conversed with friends old and new. The energy of the conversations I had is helping to motivate me as I work through the final period of dissertation writing/revising. The congress also included excursions, so I got to see some stunning things both in and out of the city. The landscape in Iceland is startlingly, unbelievably beautiful. I asked my Romanticist friend if the word "sublime" applied, and she said that it did. Driving through the country there feels like driving out of this world and into a world of myth. I fell in love with Iceland. I immersed myself in sagas before and during my trip, and then the landscape of the sagas vivified and challenged  and confirmed everything that I had read or wanted to read.

Black sand beach at Vik
(The sea stacks may be trolls who
were petrified by the sunrise)
An incredible feature of the landscape is that every place I visited was interwoven with stories. These stories bridge the gaps between myth and history with growing grass and trickling water and surging lava. A cliff was a troll who'd been petrified by the rising sun. A pool of water  once splashed with the bodies of women hurled there to drown for adultery or incest or infanticide. The terrain there seems indifferent to humans (though maybe not to elves). Its beauty delights and beckons, but it seems like it isn't really meant for us either. I cannot imagine how the first settlers survived. Yet the stories that surround every topographical feature manage to lend it a narrative texture. Reykjavik, for example, exists where it does because Ingólfur Arnarson threw his high seat pillars into the ocean in 874 when he saw Iceland's coastline materialize on the horizon. The pillars landed in a spot made steamy by hot springs, leading to the name Reykjavik, meaning "smoky bay."

The city, then, functions as the living answer to a question from story: where will these pillars land? And other built environments are connected to stories as well. Visiting the turf houses of Keldur was a thrill, having read about them in Njál's Saga. The host, a stoic lady who grew chatty as we showed her our enthusiasm for the location and its history, told us that the foundation was a thousand years old, but that people had lived in the house we we're standing in until 1946. We could see the layers of construction; we could feel the temporal rift as we moved between two sections of the house that had been built 600 years apart. We looked at the mixed construction -- wood and stone -- that our host explained combined building practices from Viking and Celtic cultures, a sign that the settlers from Norway often stopped off in Ireland and Scotland to pick up slaves. Not only geographical movements, but sociocultural realities of the past leave their mark.

Turf houses at Keldur
Detail from Njáls saga fragment, c. 1300

But architectural wonders are not the primary attractions in Iceland. The people who settled there built no massive castles or cathedrals. And much of what they did build has disappeared under layers of time. The remains of  a longhouse, for example, feature in the Settlement Museum. The ruins were discovered during a construction project, and the museum is carved out around them in an underground space. As incredible as this museum is, most of the impressive buildings I saw are not medieval, but modern: the Harpa concert hall, Hallgrímskirkja church. The most dazzling remains of times past in Iceland are manuscripts and the recorded sagas and laws and history and myths they contain. And those narratives are written onto the landscape as surely as any wood or stone constructions could be. 

Leif Erikisson and Hallgrímskirkja
Inside Harpa

Outside of the city, the landscape seems to swallow up built structures with its shifting and boisterous geological demeanor. In the landscape of Þingvellir, fissures and cracks in the earth proliferate and separating plates reveal a path between the continents. In such a space, who could hope to locate the famed rock where The Law Speaker stood to recite the laws to the people? Grass-covered outlines of booths are the only traces of the lively gatherings that once crowded the space. Yet the story of the law rock and of the yearly general assemblies that took place there from 930 to 1798 still brings us to Þingvellir en masse. The description of the general assembly as a place to adjudicate disputes and visit friends and relatives is vivid in texts like Njál's saga. The land is steeped in the intersected narratives of geological and historical time.

The earth splits at Þingvellir

The multiplicity of temporal narratives written onto the landscape there reminds me of medieval mappa mundi, which feature Biblical and classical and contemporary history arranged spatially over the world. Medieval travel narratives (and Icelandic sagas, for that matter) connect their stories to locations, while the maps connect the locations to stories, but in each case there remains a strong sense that narratives and places are mutually constitutive. Since I was presenting a paper on this very idea, the location of the conference and my adventures there ended up connecting to my presentation in ways that I couldn't have anticipated. In my paper, "'By Sun and by Shadow': Narrative Mapping in The Canterbury Tales," I considered the frame of the The Canterbury Tales as a travel narrative and thought about the function of the tales in relation to travel. I guess it was inevitable that my own experience of traveling would link to my paper.

Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
In one memorable moment, for example, as I scrambled into a cavern behind the waterfall called Seljalandsfoss, I found myself rethinking how time is conceived in The Canterbury Tales. The power of the water was palpable, so palpable that I emerged from the experience drenched. Water rolls off of the mountain inexorably; currents and gravity converge so that the water travels forcefully in one direction, a teleological natural wonder. (Though I was later told that the wind is sometimes so strong that it can send a waterfall upward ...) Anyone who gazes into the heart of a waterfall can see that its movements are beyond human control. Harry Bailey evokes such an image in the prologue to the Man of Law’s Tale, when he laments wasted time:

Lordinges, the tyme wasteth night and day,
And steleth from us, what prively slepinge,
And what thurgh necligence in our wakinge,
As dooth the streem, that turneth never agayn,
Descending fro the montaigne in-to playn. (21-25).

The host’s description of time expresses the movement from one moment to the next in a strikingly geographical way. Time is like a stream, whose current only moves one way. The progression of time is like gravity, flowing down the mountain in a way that we mortals are powerless to fight. We are always in the flow of time; it’s not so visible or tangible as the waterfall, but its movement is just as relentless. The pilgrims’ trip to Canterbury might be meandering and, ultimately, incomplete, but time moves along as they tell their tales and we read them.

This description of time as a geographical feature connects temporal movement, often seen as linear and narrative (at least in many Western cultures), with the more spatial and visual. Since the frame of The Canterbury Tales is a travel narrative, this connection between narrative and landscape makes sense. Medieval travel narratives, all along the spectrum from real to fictional, follow a model of connecting locations to stories of things that have happened there (or may have happened there). And my travel the week before had been the same. The part of the gorge leading to Seljalandsfoss, for example, is named Troll’s Gorge for an old troll woman who tried to cross it. Other places I visited connect to people and events from the sagas, and the sagas in turn are consistently connected to topographical features that we can visit today. A hill or city or waterfall links us with things that happened there a thousand years ago. Travel narratives more generally serve to yoke stories and locations. Medieval mappae mundi take this connection even further, collapsing past and present by presenting all of their details in
Babylon and Tower of Babel from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon
(From the British Library's Medieval Manuscripts Blog)
terms of space: here is where Lot’s wife looked back, here is where the Tower of Babel was constructed, here is where Alexander crossed the Hellespont. In Maps of Medieval Thought, Naomi Reed Kline describes the medieval world map as "a visual encyclopedia of images and disparate facts" which she contrasts with the "linear and discursive" nature of language (89). The depiction of historical narratives on these maps is spatial rather that teleological; bits of text only make sense in terms of their location on the map. Pilgrimage both relies upon this sense of narrative location and imposes a linearity to it, as pilgrims create an itinerary to a place because of the story associated with it. You go to Canterbury because that is where Thomas Becket was martyred. (And many of us, in turn, go to Canterbury because of The Canterbury Tales.) Chaucer's pilgrims perpetually travel the road to Canterbury, always moving toward it and never arriving. Yet The Canterbury Tales do not describe the journey itself, do not recreate the landscape or experience of travel in words. Rather, the text employs a kind of narrative mapping to move the characters along via stories. Tales whose subject matter spans the globe serve to paint a line between two distinct locations in England.

I argue that Chaucer's use of narrative mapping in The Canterbury Tales serves to reexamine the ways in which time and space function together in the act of traveling. Chaucer specifically calls attention to the connection between story and travel in the prologues to The Man of Law's Tale and The Parson's Tale. In each prologue, the host notes the position of the sun and the shadows it creates in order to ascertain the time and thus to decide how many tales may yet be told that day. Each tale is told as a result of these calculations, and thus each tale begins with a specific sense of correlation to the journey at hand. Unlike the bits of narrative on mappae mundi, these stories do not directly concern the location of their telling, but instead represent the movement through time and space that constitutes travel itself. To map the progress of these pilgrims, then, is only possible by engaging with acts of storytelling.

The Tabard, Urry's edition of Chaucer (1720)
(Courtesy of Visualizing Chaucer)
In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the narrator takes pains to give us “Th' estaat, th' array, the nombre, and eek the cause/ Why that assembled was this compaignye/ In southwerk at this gentil hostelrye/ That highte the tabard, faste by the belle” (716-19). The people on the trip are clear to us, so much so that my students came in angry with the Wife of Bath one semester. We get details about them that give context to the stories they tell, and many of the stories (such as the Wife’s) are deeply rooted in the character who tells them. The places are far less clear. My colleague Kara McShane has recently created a website called Visualizing Chaucer, and it features a constantly increasing number of images of the pilgrims and their tales. Under the heading “places,” however, only two locations are mentioned: the Tabard Inn and Canterbury Cathedral. Since the pilgrims never seem to actually make it to Canterbury, the Tabard Inn is the only place in the text well-defined enough to illustrate. And even the inn is simply placed “fast by the belle.”  Despite the frame’s implied movement, the stories could be told anywhere (though the pilgrimage gives a reason for the disparate group to be together, and starting in Southwark may increase the possibility of mixing such a cross-section of society). Once the tale-telling begins, the movement from Southwark to Canterbury recedes into near invisibility as we’re treated to tales with locations that are both specific and general but that do not in any way correspond to the landscape through which the pilgrims move.

Because of this lack of topographical detail, the moments when the host does seem to call attention to the surroundings are striking. Before introducing the Man of Law’s Tale, we are told that
           Our Hoste sey wel that the brighte sonne
The ark of his artificial day had ronne
The fourthe part, and half an houre, and more;
And though he were not depe expert in lore,

He wiste it was the eightetethe day
Of April, that is messager to May;
And sey wel that the shadwe of every tree
Was as in lengthe the same quantitee
That was the body erect that caused it. (1-9)
Photo from my own pilgrimage to
Canterbury in 2011

The passage continues for some time, as the host notices many things about the shadows and infers many things about the time on account of what he sees. Josie Bloomfield pointed out last year at the Plymouth Medieval and Renaissance Forum (in a talk titled "Walking with an Astrolabe: Measuring Time on Chaucer’s Pilgrimage") that his information is not particularly accurate and is more cumbersome than it needs to be. If the host wants to know the time, listening to church bells would be much easier. And yet Chaucer chooses to write it this way. The details he includes might not describe a specific location on the journey to Canterbury, but they do describe sun and tree and shadow in order to define a specific point on the journey. As Helen Cooper explains in The English Romance in Time, “A phrase such as ‘a day’s journey’ is in fact tautologous, since ‘journey’ derives from journée, how far can be covered in a day. Distance itself was hard to measure, and the conversion of space into time provided a functional and accessible approximation. The ease of the conversion is itself an indication of how one-dimensional travel appeared, like time itself. The conversion worked in the other direction too, to represent time as space. Dante famously claimed to have had his vision of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven mid-way along the pathway of his life, in the thirty-fifth year of his allotted seventy” (68). To travel is to move through space and time simultaneously, and to pilgrimage is to ultimately to collapse the two. We go to the place where Becket was killed in the past because that location has meaning for us in the present. The host further connects location to time when he uses the waterfall metaphor I mentioned above. The conclusion of his astronomical musings is to ask the Man of Law to waste no more time and tell his tale. There is some irony in how much time the host spends in trying to move things along, but the sustained focus on scenery and time and story-telling functions to remind us of the connection between travel and narrative in the Tales.

The tale the Man of Law tells is itself full of travel, as Custance sails from east to west and back again. Kathy Lavezzo argues in Angels on the Edge of the World that "since Custance's journey begins in Syria, the cartographic territory evoked in the tale . . . suggests a map of the world" (95). Both we as readers and the pilgrims as listeners can follow Custance’s voyages while the Man of Law describes them. Stories, after all, are a kind of travel, as reading about travel to holy places sometimes functioned as virtual pilgrimage for those who
Detail from Gustaf Tenggren illustration
to the Man of Law's Tale (1961)
couldn’t make the actual journey. Yet as John F. Plummer noted the same day as my own talk in a fantastic paper called "Figures of Geo-political Spaces in the Man of Law's Tale," 
Custance’s journey is not as specific geographically as it is in Chaucer’s sources. The Man of Law often cannot name the castle or island on which Custance lands. At one point he explains that her boat goes "Som-tyme West, som-tyme North and South,/ And som-tyme Est, ful many a wery day" (948-949). So, basically, her boat goes in every direction. Nothing could be farther from the image of the forcefully direct waterfall. And time is no less clearly defined. Custance’s ship is carried back and forth across the ocean for "Yeres and dayes," a time that seems specific, with the addition of days, and yet is nonetheless vague (463). How many years? How many days? Later, her ship is at sea for "Fyve yeer and more" -- we do get a number of years this time, but the "and more" undoes that precision (902). The sense of movement over space and through time is almost magnified by this unspecificity, as our heroine’s movements could cover any distance we could imagine. Yet the passage of time is indelibly linked to the oceanic spaces through which she is traveling. Everything about her tale is rooted in her landscape (or rather oceanscape).

The second mention of sun and shadows comes before the Parson’s Tale, which is further removed from physical travel than the Man of Law’s choice of material. In this second instance, the geotemporal reflections in this scene come not from the host, but from the narrator Geoffrey. He begins with reference to the previous tale, which places the observations explicitly between tales:

By that the maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
The sonne fro the south lyne was descended
So lowe, that he nas nat, to my sighte,
Degreës nyne and twenty as in highte.

Foure of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse;
For eleven foot, or litel more or lesse,
My shadwe was at thilke tyme, as there,
Of swich feet as my lengthe parted were
In six feet equal of proportion. (1-9)

 My own interaction with sun and mist and
flowers at the base of Gullfloss
With the shift from host to Geoffrey, we also get a more personal interaction with the landscape, as the calculations are made not in terms of trees, but in terms of his own shadow. As before, the landscape is vague and general, and yet it is nonetheless there, and both time and tale-telling are defined by it. And the implications of sun and shadow must be clearly evident, since the host responds to them even as Geoffrey tells us about them. The narrator explains that it is because of the telling length and angle of the shadows that the host addresses the pilgrims:

                      … 'Lordings everichoon,
Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon.
Fulfild is my sentence and my decree;
I trowe that we han herd of ech degree.
Almost fulfild is al myn ordinaunce.' (15-19)

The tale-telling is meant to accompany the trip to Canterbury, so the idea that all but one pilgrim has told a tale and that the host’s ordinance is almost fulfilled gives us a clear sense of movement. If this many tales has been told while riding along, they must have been getting somewhere. And again this knowledge of movement and this request for another tale comes from observations about the play of the sun on the world, details about their surroundings so clear that the host could speak up even as the narrator muses to us about his own shadow.

The Parson’s Tale that follows is, to put it mildly, different from the Man of Law’s. In response to the host’s invitation to give the company a fable, the parson retorts “Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me” (31). And not only is it not a fable, but it’s not even really a tale at all.  It’s more of a sermon. While the Man of Law, responding to a similar request from the host, sends us around the world with his narrative, the parson wants us to instead look inward and examine our souls for a different sort of pilgrimage. As he explains,

          And jhesu, for his grace, wit me sende
          To shewe yow the wey, in this viage,
          Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage
          That highte jerusalem celestial. (48-51)

The parson wants to achieve the perfect pilgrimage of celestial Jerusalem, which isn’t physical but is rather spiritual in nature. Even though tales like the Man of Law’s don’t
John's vision of Christ and heavenly Jerusalem, Revelation 21: 2-8
from Yates Thompson 10 f. 36
(Courtesy of the British Library)
directly relate to the voyage at hand, they’re still part of a shared game of tale-telling that is associated with the time it takes to get from one place in England to another. The Parson, on the other hand, yanks us out of the temporal realm and leads us to a kind of pilgrimage that is related to a Canterbury pilgrimage spiritually (at least ideally speaking – some pilgrims seem to have more spiritual reasons than others), but is distinct in more practical ways. As Helen Cooper notes, “The pathway of life is also the journey of life; life as quest” (68). We’re all moving from birth to death, and many hope that death will be followed by a pleasant afterlife. As the narrator in Pearl just can’t help but try to cross the river in his vision, it’s easy to mistake geographical movement as the way to achieve that ultimate pilgrimage, but the parson insistently reminds us that we must look inward and turn our minds to higher things. It is perhaps telling that a “tale” with so little connection to either narrative or location follows an extended musing on the visual cues of the passage of time.  We might long for the eternal, but in the meantime we’re stuck in the temporal realm.

As we read these moments where time and space rise to the surface of the Canterbury Tales’ frame narrative only to be followed by tales with an increasingly vague sense of physical locatedness, the connection in narrative between time and space becomes both apparent and richly complex. It is impossible to separate the one from the other, and yet neither is fixed. Whether we read a story or travel to Iceland or just sit and wait, things change. Time passes. The earth shifts, and landscapes are built and rebuilt. The simultaneously uncertain and sure movement of those pilgrims as they wend their way and tell there tales both removes us from time and space and reminds us that we can never escape them. Except, perhaps, in the afterlife.

Layers of lava rock look heavenly to me

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Is that a riddle in your pocket? Apollonius of Tyre and The Third International Congress of the John Gower Society

We had our own watery voyage.
(A boat ride on the Genesee River.)
This summer has combined conferences both far away and very near. I got to travel to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference (about which I'll blog later), and I got to present at home in Rochester at The Third International Congress of the John Gower Society: "John Gower: Language, Cognition, and Performance." Traveling to Iceland was magical, but it was also a joy to welcome scholars from around the world to my own institution. The Gower conference was all that I hoped, combining scholarship, camaraderie, and creativity.

I presented a paper entitled "'Bot in writinge it mai be spoke': Intratextual Desire in Gower's Tale of Apollonius of Tyre." The paper was new topic for me. Just as I'm finishing up my dissertation, this paper helps bring a second project into focus (which also connects to work I've been doing on Elaine of Astolat, the Camelot Project page on whom I published recently). As is inevitable at the beginning of a project, I feel like I need to think through it much more fully, but I'm excited about where it will take me. Despite my nerves, the paper went well. The whole panel fit together beautifully, our ideas mingling in surprising and delightful ways, and the discussion afterward continued throughout the conference. As with the best presentation experiences, I feel like the enthusiasm and questions and discussions I encountered will help me continue to develop my ideas.

For those who aren't familiar with the Tale of Apollonius of Tyre, I recommend reading the tale (just scroll down to line 271 of Confessio Amantis book 8). If you've seen/read Shakespeare's Pericles, then you have a basic sense of the plot. The story begins with a king, Antiochus, who has lost his wife and tries to replace her with his daughter. It's a disturbing beginning, and Gower doesn't shy away from the trauma of the princess as her own father violates her. As suitors begin to vie for the princess's hand, Antiochus devises an impossible riddle for them to answer.  Many suitors try, and many suitors fail. Finally, Apollonius arrives to try his hand at the riddle. He correctly guesses that the answer is the
Gower's main hobby is shooting the world.
He's basically the opposite of Atlas.
incest between Antiochus and his daughter, but this correct guess sends him running for his life. After many adventures, he lands on Pentapolis, where he gets a position as tutor to the king's daughter. Many suitors are vying for this princess's hand as well, but this father tries to facilitate his daughter's marriage. He asks the suitors to write bills, which the princess will read and compare. The princess, however, has fallen in love with Apollonius and is ill with lovesickness. The king is worried about his daughter, and she writes him a letter explaining her condition. The king brings the letter first to his wife and then to Apollonius, carefully arranging the marriage his daughter wants. Apollonius and the princess are married and the princess soon becomes pregnant, a sure sign that things are going well. When they hear that Antiochus and his daughter have been destroyed in a storm and it is safe for Apollonius to return home to Tyre, it almost seems like we've reached a happy ending. But there are a lot of lines, and a lot of troubles, left in the tale. While sailing to Tyre, the princess gives birth to a baby girl but dies in chil
dbirth. Apollonius, heartbroken over the loss of his wife, puts her in a coffin with jewels and a letter begging for her proper burial and then sends the coffin to sea. The coffin, miraculously, reaches land, and, even more miraculously, the clerk who reads the letter discovers that the princess is only mostly dead. Reviving her and hearing her story, he sets her up for the chaste life she requests. A lot more happens in the story, and we get wonderful adventures of the daughter as she grows up as well, but this brief summary will get us through the parts of the tale I had time to discuss in my paper.

I began outside the tale (and a few hundred years earlier), with riddle 44 from the Exeter Book: 
Swings by his thigh a thing most magical!
Below the belt, beneath the folds

of his clothes it hangs, a hole in its front end, 
stiff-set & stout, but swivels about.

Levelling the head of this hanging instrument,
its wielder hoists his hem above the knee:
it is his will to fill a well-known hole
that it fits fully when at full length.   

He has often filled it before. Now he fills it again.1
The answer, of course, is a key. What, were you thinking something else? The moment where the room shares a stifled laugh and represses the obvious dirty answer in favor of thinking through less obvious and more innocuous possibilities is the heart of such riddles. The pleasure lies in the simultaneity of the answer we don’t say and the one that we do.

The riddle at the beginning of Apollonius of Tyre, on the other hand, distorts this tradition by denying the pleasures of the genre. Antiochus gives suitors a riddle in which the sexual answer is correct. Centuries of riddles would suggest that there must be a clever trick here, but there isn’t. And yet speaking the real answer is a dangerous option as well. To declare publically that the king and his daughter share an incestuous relationship seems a good way to separate your head from your shoulders. No wonder so many suitors get it wrong. This twisted form of a twisted genre is well-suited to such a taboo desire as the king’s for his daughter.

The riddle in Apollonius of Tyre is the first of many expressions of as many varieties of desire. Characters in the text articulate their desires by crystallizing them in language. I argue that the genre that each linguistic expression takes directly represents the type of desire being expressed. From the opening incestuous riddle to the body wrapped lovingly in a letter, characters solidify their desires in language that can then be examined and distributed. At each instance of linguistic desire, language takes on a more corporeal quality, until letter and body are interconnected. Throughout the tale, then, language does not merely convey emotion, but embodies it, rendering it both tangible and communicable. Like the key from our opening riddle, language is both the thing to be unlocked and the means to unlock it; it is a passageway between the private and the public, one’s one thoughts and desires and the rest of the world. The fact that the genres of the linguistic expressions I discuss match the desires they communicate gives language an increasing material reality that renders it increasingly productive.

The tale begins with an inappropriate and traumatic desire, that of a father for his own daughter. The private world that Antiochus creates for himself, in which he may do as he pleases, is a world where desires cannot be clearly articulated. As María Bullón-Fernández explains, “incest is equated not just with ignorance but also with secrecy; can keep being performed as long as it is kept private” (49).2 Antiochus’s daughter weeps, but doesn’t know how to express herself so that he will hear her. Afterward, “sche lay stille, and of this thing,/ Withinne hirself such sorghe made” (314-15). The daughter’s emotions and desires become trapped in her motionless, soundless body. Not only is she silent, but R.F. Yeager points out “that Antiochus's daughter has no name, in a tale in which even the least servants and functionaries … are made known. … Thus the namelessness of Antiochus's daughter … bears a message we should ponder: that … sexual gluttony has no acceptable side” (228).3 Although the second princess, whom I will discuss later, also has no name, namelessness here seems to deny the princess any possibility of a subject position. She has no language; she cannot articulate her position. 

As offspring becomes consumed by progenitor, desire feeding upon that which it engendered, it’s fitting that the verbal form for these forbidden feelings is a riddle, a tricky trap of language to represent something to taboo to express. If, as Yeager suggests, “sexual gluttony has no acceptable side,” then it makes sense that its linguistic representation is a genre that both reveals and conceals. Antiochus recites, 

'With felonie I am upbore,
I ete and have it noght forbore
Mi modres fleissh, whos housebonde
Mi fader for to seche I fonde,
Which is the sone ek of my wif.
Hierof I am inquisitif;
And who that can mi tale save,
Al quyt he schal my doghter have;
Of his ansuere and if he faile,
He schal be ded withoute faile.' (405-14) 
The riddle puts the desire itself into first person. If the “I” is Antiochus himself, then by sexually consuming his daughter he renders himself his own father-in-law and thus his daughter becomes his mother-in-law. His daughter is his wife is his mother. Family titles multiply to the point of chaos. As Gary Lim explains, "While the riddle evokes familiar subject positions of the family … these terms are thrown into an incomprehensible jumble, except when incest is offered as an interpretive key. Yet if incest indeed governs these relations, it would render the conventionally accepted significance of these subject positions meaningless” (334).4 According to Larry Scanlon, the pleasure of riddles “lies in drawing a single, unambiguous solution out of what initially appears to be an irresolvable confusion. Thus, though they are founded on the possibility of instability, they depend just as much on the capacity of language to stabilize meaning as they do on the capacity to destabilize. In this riddle, by contrast, instability is all” (124).5

Although the riddle is difficult to parse, as family titles multiply and feed back on themselves, there is something inherently incestuous about it. Unlike riddles like the key from the Exeter book, this one is uncomfortably suggestive precisely so that no one would guess the answer. Even Apollonius never mentions the word incest, only stating that 

‘The question which thou hast spoke,
If thou wolt that it be unloke,
It toucheth al the priveté
Betwen thin oghne child and thee.’ (423-6) 
The answer to the riddle is that the answer is a secret. The riddle represents something that can be unlocked, but that perhaps shouldn’t be, a private space of taboo that can only be put into language when that language resists naming it. Bullón-Fernández points out that “the moment of incest might seem to have assumed a nature/culture opposition, or an opposition between the pre-linguistic and the linguistic, … Such an assumption postulates the existence of an original ‘natural’ state that culture acts upon,” but she argues that  “It is impossible … to go back to that origin, because … the moment we try to conceptualize an original moment, a moment before language, we must use language” and thus Antiochus’s “actions are thus not pre-legal or prelinguistic; rather, they change the existing law and they produce a new type of discourse, the riddle” (59; 60).6 This inextricability of language, prohibition, and transgression suits the riddle well, since its very messiness marks it as a link between the desire, the inexpressibility of the desire, and the desire’s expression. If desires are not prediscursive, then it makes sense that linguistic expressions in this tale fundamentally embody the desires of the characters who voice them.

After Apollonius, right about the riddle and yet running for his life, makes his way to Pentapolis, we get is very different scene of wooing. The bills created by suitors for the hand of the princess of Pentapolis are diametrically opposed to the riddle. The king recommends that “ech of hem do make a bille/ He bad, and wryte his oghne wille,/ His name, his fader and his good” (875-877). The bills are formal documents; they are straightforward, listing name, father's name, and possessions. The desire they represent is proper, but more practical than emotional. The twisted form of the riddle mirrored the twisted physical interactions between Antiochus and his daughter, her flesh proceeding from his and then being pulled backward, whereas the lineage related by the bills is appropriately linear, an overly determined teleology. Further, the bills only represent the suitors themselves, no physical or even linguistic interactions having taken place between them and the object of their attentions. The too-private desire of Antiochus is replaced by the too-public desire of these suitors. Rather than meeting her suitors, the princess will compare their petitions. They are interested in making a good match to a princess they neither know nor who knows them. But her love for the mysterious Apollonius, whom she knows in person but about whom she knows nothing, exceeds these other princes, who have given her clear information but with whom she has no personal connection. 

The letter the princess writes in response to these bills is neither direct information, like the bills, nor is it a riddle. Russell Peck explains that “[i]n Gower's source the daughter, when approached by the suitors, replies with a riddle, saying that she will marry the one who was shipwrecked ... The riddle in the source is a felicitous touch in that it makes more emphatic the parallel with Apollonius' first courtship when he encountered Antiochus' riddle. … Gower's reason for the change is probably to set off the motif of movement from will to reason, a motif we have already seen in a negative way with Antiochus, and now put positively in the growth of both Apollonius and his bride-to-be” (170-71).7 Not only does this second scene, as Peck suggests, give us a more positive version of the movement from will to reason, but it also gives us a linguistic expression more suited to this positive desire. 

The response the princess gives is romantic desire crystallized into language, a letter voicing her love for Apollonius that convinces her parents and her beloved to forge a marriage according to her wishes. As Peter Nicholson explains, “Apollonius' kin … are more virtuous … not because they don't fall in love but precisely because they do, and it is worth pointing out how fully the effects of romantic love are celebrated this late in the poem” (371-72).8 Whereas Antiochus’s desire was destructive and traumatic, the princess’s romantic desire is mutual and fruitful. And unlike the private desire of the riddle or the public desire of the bills, the princess’s letter is a point of access between the private and the public; it renders private emotions publically intelligible. We learn that she loves Apollonius “malgré wher sche wole or noght,” and this lack of control might connect us uncomfortably back to the unwieldy desire that opened the tale (829). Yet even those physical conditions that seem out of her control—being fevered or chilled, for example—proceed from “Riht after the condicion/ Of hire ymaginacion” (849-50). Her imagination, then, becomes physically manifest in her body, and these feelings take shape in the words of her letter. 

A carefully-reared young woman who is unfamiliar with such feelings and who “wolde hire goode name kepe/ For feere of wommanysshe schame,” the letter is a suitable method of articulating her desires in tangible, controllable form (854-5). Her letter opens with reference to maidenly shame as a bar to verbal communication: 

'The schame which is in a maide
With speche dar noght ben unloke,
Bot in writinge it mai be spoke;
So wryte I to you, fader, thus:
Bot if I have Appolinus,
Of al this world, what so betyde,
I wol non other man abide.
And certes if I of him faile,
I wot riht wel withoute faile
Ye schull for me be dowhterles.' (894-903)
Her words are not addressed to the object of her affection, but rather to her father, which fits within her sense of maidenly shame. Shame makes verbal communication impossible, and the rhyme between the words “spoke” and “unlock” indicates that there’s something hidden away that she must reveal through the letter. Apollonius used the same rhyme earlier, but in that case it was his job to unlock the riddle that had been spoken, whereas here the princess will unlock her own desires by writing the letter. The riddle obscured desire, while the letter clarifies it. Bullón-Fernández notes that words like “schame,” “unloke” and “privete” link this courtship scenario to the one in Antioch, but argues that “Unlike Antiochus, even though she falls madly in love, Artestrathes's daughter is aware of the public … the scenes and vocabulary are parallel to the story of Antiochus, but in these instances … privacy and secrecy are ultimately handled wisely and for public purposes” (51-2).9 The princess’s act of writing brings about a royal marriage, and the princess is clear about what she wants. Though much of the letter is conditional, using words like “but” and “if,” there is an ultimatum in her final statement. Either she’ll have Apollonius, or her father won’t have a daughter any longer. The role of daughter in her world is clear – it’s the only relationship possible between her father and herself, and it can only be maintained if she has her way. 

By voicing her emotion via letter, the princess is able to choose how and to whom she will grant her body and heart. The letter becomes a tangible, distributable form of her emotion, and it functions to facilitate her marriage in spite of the fact that the suitors have followed the proper procedure. Even as Apollonius was denied his initial suit after he correctly guessed the riddle, the princes here are denied their suit even after they write the bills. In the first case, Antiochus’s desire outweighs the suitor’s wishes, and in this case the princess communicates her desire to outweigh the bills. As Georgiana Donavin points out, “In contrast to Antiochus who controls his daughter’s sexuality, Arestrathes allows his daughter to choose her own mate; indeed, in her letter she demands the right to choose herself” (79).10 Scanlon agrees that “[a]t Antioch the desires of the daughter were obliterated; at Pentapolis they are determinative” (116).11 I would argue that this shifted emphasis onto the desires of the daughter is directly related to the ability of this daughter to express herself linguistically and the ability of this father to heed her words. Scanlon notes a contradictory element in the second father-daughter relationship:  “Antiochus’s riddle revealed the ‘privete’ he intended to hide. The king of Pentapolis, by contrast, wholeheartedly offers to Apollonius, 'The lettre and al the privete, / The which his dowhter to him sent' (VIII.918-19). What is striking about this gesture is its radically antithetical double meaning. On the one hand, it is an assertion of patriarchal privilege of the most [brutal] and naked sort. He displays his daughter’s ‘privete’ as if she were livestock at auction. One the other hand, this gesture also constitutes a radical abdication. The king reduces his role to that of obedient go-between. He becomes the transparent signifier of his daughter’s desire. Neither of these meanings can be subsumed by the other; they are irreducible components of the same act” (121).12 Whether the father here is displaying his daughter like livestock via the letter or whether he is “a transparent signifier” of her desire, her letter manages to directly stand in for her body and desires. 

Although this letter allows her to distribute her body as she chooses, the next letter comes when she has no voice left to speak her wishes. Believing her dead while they are at sea, Apollonius wraps her body in a letter and places her in a casket to float to land. The letter pleads for her burial, but leads instead to her resuscitation. 

'I, king of Tyr Appollinus,
Do alle maner men to wite,
That hiere and se this lettre write,
That helpeles withoute red
Hier lith a kinges doghter ded:
And who that happeth hir to finde,
For charité tak in his mynde,
And do so that sche be begrave
With this tresor, which he schal have.' (1110-1130) 
The fact that the subject of the letter is the body that lies “here” renders the message only meaningful if read in conjunction with the body, making text and body mutually constitutive. It’s as if the body is a text in its own right and the letter is a gloss to explain its meaning. 

The coffin also becomes a form of communication, since the men who find it “Which that thei finde faste stoke,/ Bot thei with craft it have unloke” (1175-6). As the princess used her letter to unlock and reveal her desire, the men here unlock the casket to reveal the letter and body. And, luckily for the princess, those who find the casket are able to read both the letter and the body. The letter is visible immediately upon opening the casket, and the letter leads the men to unsew the body from its shroud, another layer of unlocking that reveals crucial information. A learned clerk examines the princess’s seemingly lifeless body, “And with the craftes whiche he couthe/ He soghte and fond a signe of lif.” (1188-9). In order to find this sign of life, the clerk not only needs to be able to read both letter and body, but also must be open to a disjunction between the meaning of the two. Though the letter states that the princess is dead, the physician discovers that he can revive her. Written communication, it seems, can only unlock within the limitations of the writer’s perspective. The princess’s letter stated that she would die without Apollonius, and we believed her because she was describing her own body, but Apollonius’s letter about her can only state what he can see of her. 

Thanks to the physician, the princess regains both consciousness and linguistic expression. And her simultaneous reintroduction into both life and language allows her to situate herself and her needs properly once again. That her husband's written words can give way to her spoken ones extends the possibilities of the letter, even as this final letter is inextricably bound to her body. Her desire to be chaste while she believes her husband dead, like her earlier desire to choose her husband, is granted. Though coming from a place of limited narrative control, because of her death-state, her enclosed position, and her powerlessness to steer on her impromptu ocean voyage, the princess again succeeds in dictating her own terms for her life and body. Her husband's love for her, voiced in the letter he places with her body, allows her to continue her life as she chooses until their surprise reunion. Her facility with language thus creates for her the life of her choosing; it allows her to shape the world according to her desires. 

The tale begins not only with incest, but with rape. Gower presents us with the trauma of the rape victim, the woman who could neither articulate nor enact her own desires but rather had desires enacted upon her. The riddle is her father’s, the “I” of the riddle is him; she is silenced and fated to feel the pain of lightning strike along with her rapist. The rest of the tale, however, shows us how desire can be communicated and love can be expressed. The second princess uses writing to choose her own husband, and her own daughter, of whom I don’t have time to speak, is able to use both tears and words to maintain her chastity even when kidnapped by pirates and brought to a bordello. Language, both as a thing to be interpreted and an interpretive key in its own right, is inextricable from material realities it represents in the tale. The concordance between the language and what it represents allows for efficacious communication and thus greater autonomy and reciprocity for characters who can both speak and listen.

1 The Earliest English Poems. Translated and introduced by Michael Alexander. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1991.

María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters in Gower’s Confessio Amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

3 R.F. Yeager. John Gower's poetic: The Search for a New Arion. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY, USA: D.S. Brewer, 1990. 

4 Gary Lim. "Constructing the Virtual Family: Socializing Grief in John Gower's 'Tale of Apollonius of Tyre.'" Exemplaria, Vol. 22 No. 4, Winter, 2010, 326–48. 

5  Larry Scanlon. “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality.” Re-Visioning Gower. Ed. R. F. Yeager. Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 1998. 93–127. 

6 María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters.

7 Russell A. Peck. Kingship & Common Profit in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978

8 Peter Nicholson. Love & Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 

María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters.

10 Georgiana Donavin. Incest Narratives and the Structure of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, 1993.

11 Larry Scanlon. “The Riddle of Incest."

12 Ibid.