Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Writing Across Time and Space: My Paper about Elaine of Astolat at Kalamazoo 2015

*Before you read my Kalamazoo post, check out Kate's excellent Kalamazoo 2015 Round-up.*

I am just now recovering from the joyful exhaustion that characterizes the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Each year brings a more hectic schedule of events and reunions to the congress, with more people to see and more people I don't see enough. It always reminds me how lucky I am to be a part of such a wonderful and inclusive academic community. This congress was especially delightful and especially tiring. It's been a busy year for me so far. For those who don't yet know, I have some exciting news -- I've accepted a tenure-track position at Lyndon State College in Vermont, and I am focusing on finishing my dissertation and preparing to move. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that my Kalamazoo paper dealt with anxieties about writing and traveling. I presented on Elaine of Astolat, a woman who goes to great lengths to ensure that her words travel where/how she wants them to even after her death. I presented on a panel called "Sacred and Secular Road Trips in Middle English Romance," presided over by Eve Salisbury and organized by David Eugene Clark, Gina Marie Hurley, and Justin Lynn Barker. My panel was fantastic, featuring my co-blogger Leila (Kate) Norako, who presented on Virtual Pilgrimage, Elizabeth A. Williamsen, who presented on Sir Isumbras, and Amber Dove-Clark, who presented on Guy of Warwick.

My paper was called "Ascolat to Camelot, Guildford to Winchester: Narrative Travel in Malory’s Morte d'Arthur," and I've only just begin thinking on the topic. The q and a really gave me a lot of ideas, so the paper I give you here only represents my initial sketches on the geotemporalty in Elaine's story. Any ideas, questions, or critiques would be very welcome.

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Arthur Rackham image (1917)
courtesy of the Camelot Project
Elaine of Astolat may be dead, but she seems to be everywhere. Even as I speak, she is wending her watery way across the walls of museums, poster stores, and college dorm rooms worldwide. Her mythic status both fixes and unfixes her in time, allowing her to be always setting out for Camelot, always floating there, always arriving. She lives in the romance world and moves in romance time. Yet Malory's version of her tale connects her romance rivertrip from Ascolat to Camelot with real places, as Malory clarifies that Ascolat corresponds to contemporary Guildford and Camelot to Winchester. Elaine’s journey is a moment of geographical specificity in a text that often unfolds in a geotemporal haze. Her journey, despite its more fantastical elements, is granted a sense of real possibility, since the trip from Guildford to Winchester can be traced on a map. Guildford and Ascolat share the same ground, bringing the romance world and the historical world into startling proximity. Ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth, and perhaps before, Arthurian narrative has been sitting on the line between history and literature. How many of us have received questions from well-meaning friends and family members about whether or not Arthur was real? But the dynamic tension between history and romance takes new significance in Malory's version of Elaine's story, since her journey collapses clear boundaries between image and word, passive and active, here and gone.

I connect this overlapping with medieval world maps, in which historical timelines are arranged geographically, the meaning of each piece of text rooted in spatial relation to other pieces of text. (Here's where Lot's Wife looked back, here's where Alexander the Great camped, etc. [You can find more of my thoughts on medieval maps here and here.]) The visual and narrative are mutually constitutive on these mappae mundi. In Malory, space and time collapse in ways similar to medieval maps, as Elaine’s body and letter are inextricable as she moves through a romance landscape that looks very much like a real one (or, perhaps, a real landscape that looks like romance). Multiple geographies and temporalities overlap as she becomes both visual spectacle and narrative conduit. She chooses to travel by river, a linear, teleological mode of transportation in which currents lead to her destination. She moves into a center of power, and yet asserts her own version of events so strongly that they are literally set in stone on her tomb. I contend that the simultaneity of multiple geographic and temporal modes in Elaine’s story call attention to the complicated and contradictory way in which her most powerful moment is also the end of her life, her most visible moment is also the pinnacle of her narrative authority. The fact that Elaine is most active and authoritative when she is dead and unable to move or speak works well with the convergence of historical and mythic time, since she is static and in motion, an image and a narrative. She embodies her letter, and her body and her story find their resting place in Camelot.

Though Elaine’s story is linear in that she floats from one location to another, Malory’s telling is also cyclical. (Again, like the world maps, which presented a linear narrative in a spatial way.) In essence, we get her story three times (at least) and in different ways. As soon as we meet her, Malory tells us that “she keste such a love unto sir Launcelot that she cowde never withdraw hir loove, wherefore she dyed,” giving us the tragic end to her story before it even begins (623). This particular Elaine exists inside the larger myth of the fair maiden of Astolat. There is thus a cyclical quality to this narrative defined by clear teleology. The tale, which itself has been retold, is retold in the text. The first version is simply part of her introduction, but important because it renders her introduction narrative rather than visual. We learn who she is and what she does (and notice how active these verbs are — she cast her love, she died), but not what she looks like. And, for the first time in her tradition, we get a name for her character, which allows her a subject position to go with all those active verbs. 

As we continue with the largest portion of the narrative, Elaine consistently communicates her own thoughts and wishes. She tells Launcelot (and Gawain, and everyone else, for that matter) directly of her love. She asks Launcelot to wear her favor, and later asks him to be her husband ... or at least her lover. She seeks him in a quest when she takes over Gawain's search, and then she directly interacts with his body as she heals it. Even as she performs the more traditionally feminine role of healer, she is only able to do so because she has taken on a knight's quest given by King Arthur himself. Launcelot's body is the object of both her quest and of her healing. Though her most famous (and most illustrated) voyage is her post-mortem one, she also seeks Launcelot on land (while alive) and succeeds in reaching him where Gawain fails.

Launcelot tries to give her options other than death, but she'll have none of it. He, not seeing the insult in his offer, attempts to provide her with a dowry to marry another, but she responds matter-of-factly: "Alas! Than', seyde she, 'I must dye for youre love'" (638). Her assertion troubles the world of the romance, since she is not imperiled in a way that allows for masculine rescue. As Dorsey Armstrong explains, "the Pentecostal Oath constructs male and female in terms of a binary which opposes active, aggressive masculinity to passive, helpless femininity" (45). Knights gain honor by saving damsels in distress. Yet neither Launcelot nor her brothers nor her father nor anyone else can save her once she asserts her coming demise. Molly Martin has pointed out that Perceval's sister, another lady in a boat, chooses to die in such a way that her brother cannot rescue her, and Elaine’s death is similarly outside of the chivalric system.

Instead, her death forms a new narrative all her own. Walsh notes that "Malory does not let Elaine die offstage, as she does in both the sources" (144). And it is in fact her death (and the related fact that we see her voyage from her perspective and thus vicariously journey with her to Camelot rather than just seeing her arrive) in Malory's version that creates such a strong sense of her character. As Martin points out, "Malory carefully reworks the material surrounding her death to show a particularly active Fayre maydyn creating an image of her own dead body" (154). Knowing that she'll die, she first requests to dictate a letter, and then describes the way in which her father and brother should arrange her body.  All of these requests are meant to prepare a narrative for the court, and all are meant to give her authorial control. The fact that she mentions the letter first means that all arrangements are in terms of that letter. Gawain may send a deathbed missive to Launcelot, but Elaine sends her deathbed. Her deathbed is in fact part of the missive. She requests, "'And whyle my body is hote lat thys letter be put in my ryght honde, and my honde bounde faste to the letter untyll that I be colde" (640). The letter thus provides the link between living and dead maiden. The willful clasp of warm hand will be  followed by the inert touch of cold fingers, but the letter will witness the moment of transition and remain. The further details she requests, to be put on a bed with rich clothes, to be taken to the Thames, and to have her barge covered in black samite, all function as extensions of this request for a written message (640). All these details are meant to be read and understood by the court in conjunction with the letter and to properly convey her version of herself and her story. She'll make a spectacular entrance, but also an epistolary one.

There are a number of ways that she maintains control over her letter. She asks that a mute oarsman row her barge, assuring that someone will be present to ensure the barge goes where she wants but that no one can provide an alternate version of her story. She travels by river, which, unlike an ocean voyage, has a specific direction. If we see the linear movement of the river as historical time, then Elaine's movement in history is brief and tragic. Martin B. Shichtman points out that Elaine “has no real story beyond that which can be summed up in two sentences. Her entrance into the realm of historical time is brief, incomplete, and fatal” (261). And this is certainly true. Yet it's also true that historical time here is not wholly separate from a-historical romance time. Joseph D. Parry discusses the way in which Malory locates Elaine's story in both Guildford, specifically locatable to a 15th century reader, and also Astolat, "a place firmly inscribed in the Arthurian landscape of surprise adventures" (159). He notes that the text "locates the river down which the Fair Maid's funerary procession travels, in two settings. One can locate the river – the Thames . . . in Malory's fifteenth-century world. But Elaine's final river trip is also a journey elevated to mythical status." Her journey thus complicates both spatiality and temporality. Meg Rowland calls Malory's manner of pairing mythical and 15th century locations "pluralistic geography," in conjunction with the coexistence of chronicle and romance time. Elaine's journey functions in such geographically and temporally complex ways. The movement of a river is narrative in itself, and combines the static quality of Elaine's dead body with the narrative quality of her story. Word and image, text and body, fuse as she makes her first and last trip to Camelot. 

As she floats to Camelot, everyone's talking about her, and she is ultimately able to squash all the rumors and give the last word on the subject. At fist, Arthur only notices the spectacle -- the corpse's great beauty and riches -- without understanding its full import. He does observe that "she lay as she had smyled" (640). Sue Ellen Holbrook points out that "the smile . . . is the sign of a soul at rest," and I think this sign is legible to the knights of the court (177). It is the queen who notices the letter and points it out to Arthur and the knights, thus recognizing the body's full narrative potential. The letter then gets a public audience, her version of the story read directly to all. Alan Lupack explains that "her arrival is . . . an elaborately staged performance. … The public display is important because it provides the setting for Elaine's letter" (260). I would even argue that the performance, the spectacle of it all, is part of the letter. Her letter is inextricable from her cold hand, from her beautiful face, from her smile, from her lovely garments, from the strange mode by which she enters the court.

The letter is Malory's third iteration of the Fair Maiden's tale; as a deathbed epistle, Elaine's version of events holds some authority. Malory expands upon this authority by giving us the letter in its entirety:
'Moste noble knyght, my lorde sir Launcelot, now hath dethe made us two at debate for youre love. And I was youre lover, that men called the Fayre Maydyn of Astolate. Therefore unto all ladyes I make my mone, yet for my soule ye pray and bury me at the leste, and offir ye my masse-peny: thys ys my laste requeste. And a clene maydyn I dyed, I take God to wytnesse. And pray for my soule, sir Launcelot, as thou arte pereless.' (641) 
As many critics have noted, this version of her letter differs from those that place blame on Launcelot. Malory's version focuses not on vengeance, but rather on asserting Elaine’s own character and providing her personal narrative. As Georgiana Donavin explains, "Where the letter's narratio, or news, would ordinarily be, there is, instead, her assertion of identity . . . Elaine's subject position is the story in her epistle" (7). She wants a proper burial, she wants a mass-penny, and she wants everyone to know that she loved Launcelot and died a clean maiden. That she wants a mass-penny and prayers for her soul indicates a connection between the body in the barge and the soul of the maiden, even as her earlier deathbed assertion to a priest that she was a worldly woman coincided with preparation for her departure from the world. In short, the journey itself is a boundary collapse between sacred and secular road trips. Thus Elaine can not only assure that her story is understood but she can tell that story in such a way that it will have real efficacy for her, even after her death.

And Elaine's letter certainly rouses the crowd. By the time they call in Launcelot, "the kynge, the quene and all the knyghtes wepte for pité of the dolefull complayntes" (641). Public feeling is on the maiden's side before Launcelot even enters the scene. Even the queen pities Elaine and blames Launcelot. It's telling that even an audience as prejudiced against Elaine as the queen can see the pity in her narrative. It also seems that the queen can’t see outside of the chivalric system, assuming that Launcelot could have saved Elaine somehow, whereas Elaine herself resisted this model. Camelot is the geographical heart of the round table narrative, and the people of the court, epitomized by the queen, live by the chivalric system that Elayne has rejected. When she enters the court, her own identity and story collide with a realm she never knew in life, and her words become part of the official narrative.

Thus, the maiden's tale does not end with her death, but instead with her version of her story. The tale ends with a retelling of itself from her perspective only made possible by her journey in death. This cyclical method of telling a story with such a clearly linear direction (i.e. the river) furthers the complicated way in which Elaine's body and letter function as image-text. Simultaneous cyclical and linear movements render the maiden's story both ever-happening and ever-new, while the contemporary geographical details place it in the past as well. The past tense and the literary present collide and verbs fail to express the temporal possibilities of Malory's version of the tale. Elaine is both a static image and a moving narrative. Just as she has the ability to travel when she can no longer move and to communicate when she can no longer speak, her story is characterized by contradiction.We gain proper nouns to allow Elaine a subject position, but our verb tenses explode between already-happened and always-happening. Disrupting time and space in this way allows her to be fixed and moving, visual and narrative, all at once. Her funeral literally fixes the story she has told in stone and gives both her body and her tale a permanent place in the land to which she sailed.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Kalamazoo 2015 Round-up!

I know I’ve said it before, but I’ve really come to see my (usually) annual journey The International Congress on Medieval Studies as a kind of pilgrimage, and this particular journey to K’zoo was no exception. Traveling here had its salient differences though. I left my baby (called Pixie here and elsewhere online as a form of protection and, well, because she looks like a little woodland sprite!) at home for the first time since she was born, and I also departed while in the midst of a teaching quarter (as opposed to being at the end of a semester). Both were deeply disconcerting, to say the least!

The leaving part was hard, harder than I’d anticipated (though, I’ll admit, watching Interstellar on the flight to Detroit was an apt exercise in perspective), and there were moments on the trip that were even harder. To that end, here is a hard-won tip for fellow new(ish) parents: if you have to travel away from your little, and he/she is under 13 months, approach Skype/FaceTime with deep wells of caution. My husband set up his phone so she and I could see each other that first night, and as soon as she heard my voice she looked around at the front door expecting me to be there (cue the shattering heart). She then turned her head around, saw mom in the tiny box, stuck out a trembling lower lip, and started to wail. Fortunately, I happened to be at Bells with dear friends and a beer flight waiting for me back at the table. Robbie, sweet spouse that he is, also sent me a video of a smiling and giggling Pixie (taken moments after we signed off and she calmed down), that helped me even more. He sent me pictures just about every day along with updates, and – truth be told – I found myself so happily surrounded by friends and colleagues, and so busy and energized by all the things I needed and wanted to do, that my time away was easier to manage than I had thought it would be. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, the Medieval Institute, and the conference organizers for how skillfully they set up and advertised the nursing/lactation rooms. As a nursing mother traveling without my babe, these were crucial to my being able to participate in the conference as fully as possible (without them I would have had to head back to the hotel several times and miss out on much of the conference in the process). I found myself very comforted by their presence and by how easy they were to access throughout the day.

I attended a number of truly innervating sessions, but there were a few that especially stuck with me. The first was the panel honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Having come up in Academia long after the book’s publication, I was grateful for the reminders of the book’s seminal importance and how much of a productive disruptor it was when it first came out. Steve Kruger reminded us of how the book “challenged dominate masculinist readings” and how it challenged us “to ask different questions about medieval and modern reading practices.” Emma Solberg echoed this sentiment as well by pointing out that the book proffers “liberating, energizing, and empowering readings” that weren’t considered possible/feasible/acceptable at the time, and how Dinshaw, in the book, “seized permission and authority” to do so.  To her (and I agree with her wholly), the book acts like a kind of Griselda in the ways it exposes patriarchal chauvinism. Lynn Shutters, in turn, talked both about the book’s importance and Dinshaw’s ability to find the utility in “necessary discomfort” and “a lack of resolution.” By way of example, she explained how the final chapter of Dinshaw's dissertation, which she wasn’t entirely satisfied with at the time, contained the raw material that would later become Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. In turn, the ideas in the final chapter of that very book — “Eunuch Hermenutics” — would be explored and teased out even further in Getting Medieval. On hearing Shutters talk about the evolution of Dinshaw's work, I took solace in the reminder that discomfort with your work can, if you let it, be a productive and motivating force.  It’s a reminder I very much needed since I've found myself more than a bit overwhelmed of late with my own book project. 

These responses to Dinshaw’s work were truly compelling, and I found myself equally compelled by her response, where she revealed that – while this book did eventually get her tenure -- she was initially turned down for tenure (a decision that was ultimately overturned by the deans) because of the book and the way in which it threatened the endemic chauvinism of the academy. I’ve always admired her work for its boldness and its ingenuity, and I was reminded – especially as she told her story -- of how indebted I am to her and to others like her for creating room for younger scholars like me to breathe and thrive. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be able to do the kind of work that I do had it not been for her willingness –- and the willingness of others –- to publish bold and brave works that argued passionately (either implicitly and explicitly) for the power and importance of reflexive analysis. I came away from the session very grateful for her work and for the reminders of its importance provided by each of the speakers.

And I left another session, on being a Public Medievalist, equally innervated. Having been invited to write a brief write-up on my experience as a type of public medievalist (soon to appear on postmedieval’s Forum), I attended the session quite eagerly, and I found myself particularly compelled by the conversations and ideas that emerged throughout the talks and Q&A, especially those surrounding the talk that David Perry gave. He offered insights into the complications of being both a journalist/public writer and an academic, especially when one’s worlds converge (i.e. when, as a crusade’s scholar, you write an 800 word op-ed on a crusades-related topic to a popular audience, knowing you’ll provoke the ire of both scholars and non-specialists). He also spoke compellingly about the risks and perils of going public, and now we – as a community – need to be more humane, more aware of the potential effects our written words can have on social media. He reminded us that a single tweet about a young scholar’s “boring” presentation can and, in this day and age, likely will have an negative impact on his/her career, and he ended his talk with the following recommendation: “If you can’t tweet something nice, don’t tweet it at all.”

I really appreciated his talk, since it helped me to tease out some of the issues and frustrations I’ve had with how I’ve been approaching my own blogging. I know for a fact that I spend more time than I should on each blog post I submit here at In Romaunce. I want to write more frequently and to be bolder, but I also feel immense pressure to watch what I say out here in the blogosphere and in social media. I feel palpably in these spaces how very precarious I am at this point in my career, and this results in my feeling more than a little hesitant about what I say and how I say it. This is why, for instance, it took me well over a week to muster up the courage to post my thoughts on Obama’s prayer breakfast. I’m ultimately glad I wrote what I did, but I’ve wished for sometime now that I could find a way to be braver more frequently (and more swiftly). Attending the session and chatting with him and fellow attendees afterwards, however, reminded me that my cautiousness might not be a bad thing at all. I might not produce as much as I’d like, but at this point in my career, a little extra caution probably can’t hurt. 

This year's K'zoo also marked the last time I served as the organizer and presider over Malory Aloud/Performing Malory. I inherited these roles somewhat by accident, but I couldn't be more grateful for having had the opportunity to lead this group for the past eight years. In addition to each performance session being a rollicking good time, the process of rereading significant portions of Malory's Morte each year has been deeply enriching, especially when I needed to track certain themes or characters. Last year, for instance, we hosted a performance entitled "Malory Interruptus: Sex and Love in the Morte." In addition to (re)discovering that Perceval nearly boinks Satan while on the Grail Quest (!!!!!!!!), I noticed how consistently fraught sexual encounters are in the Morte, and how the problematics of sex are often tangled up with the non-procreative nature of these same encounters. I wouldn't have arrived at that idea, or others, were it not for my work on these sessions, and I remain truly grateful for having been able to take the helm for so long as a result. Also, and just as importantly, I had the privilege to get to know an array of truly lovely and inspirational scholars along the way, and I remain so excited to see what the merry troupe will continue to do in the years to come!

I’ll save my own session for a separate post, but for now, I want to end with a few parting thoughts on conviviality, community, and affect. Though I was (sadly) unable to attend Richard Utz’s plenary, I heard much about it from friends who did, and I was deeply appreciative not only of his discussion of affect (and how we need to dismantle notions that work and pleasure need necessarily be mutually exclusive). I was also glad that BABEL was acknowledged, because I’ve grown very deeply fond of the organization since graduating from Rochester. I am currently very fortunate in my postdoctoral position, but the job search last year showed me how difficult and uncertain my road ahead will be. I know that I might not have a professional future in academia once all is said and done. But I do know that I will always be a medievalist one way or another. I know this because I love the material deeply. But I also know this because of BABEL’s willingness – even insistence – on including non-traditional scholars in its mix. Knowing that I will always genuinely be welcome at their gatherings, that I won’t be looked at askance, is truly comforting to me. It gives me courage, especially as I steel myself for the upcoming job search this Fall. 

In the end, I left this conference with a full head and heart. I wished I’d had more time to connect with even more people than I did, but was so grateful for the deep and fruitful conversations I was fortunate enough to have with so many of you. As many have said on social media already (and as, for example, Elaine Treharne’s recent #GenderImbalance tweets reveal) we have quite a ways to go in how we treat one another, but I was encouraged all the same to see so many of us working towards positive changes at this gathering. Onwards!