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.

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