Chrétien and the Silent Majority

“Well I didn’t vote for you” 1

Silence versus speech, namely question and answers, serves as one of the central conceits of Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail (Perceval). Perceval begins the story as an uncouth youth who states whatever he wishes, and as indicative of most bildungsroman narratives, he matures, but he matures into silence. The gentleman and vavasour, Gornemant of Gohort, gives Perceval advice, “‘he who talks too much commits a sin’…I warn you not to talk too much” (402)2, and this becomes Perceval’s guiding motivational aphorism, following his mother’s earlier advice. In the definitive moment of him being seated at the Fisher King’s table and witnessing the grail procession, he does not ask any questions, and his “failure becomes one of being silent” (Murrell 55). Perceval’s (de)evolution as a character seems analogous to the modern day apathetic citizen, for though he undergoes “refinement” his resultant character shift, though societally acceptable, results in failure.

Raised ignorant to his noble bloodline, chivalry, and courtly etiquette, Perceval knew no other life besides the sheltered existence manufactured for him by his mother in the Waste Land (387). Chance or fate brought him in contact with five knights, beginning his tale and indoctrination into knighthood. Perceval leaves after receiving a lecture from his mother, who faints upon his departure from worry (387-389). Impulsive decision and want drive Perceval to King Arthur. He bursts into the court at Camelot:

The boy [Perceval] did not give a fig for anything the king told him, nor did his grief or the shame done the queen make any impression on him. ‘Make me a knight, sir king.’ he said, ‘for I wish to be on my way.’ The eyes of the rustic youth were bright and laughing in his head. No one who saw him thought him wise, but everyone who observed him considered him handsome and noble.

‘Friend,’ said the king, ‘dismount and give your hunter to this squire…’

And the boy replied: ‘The knights I met in the heath never dismounted, yet you want me to dismount! By my head, I’ll not dismount, so get on with it and I’ll be on my way’ (393)

Perceval’s boldness here, namely his refusal to dismount, appears as an affront to Arthur’s authority, but his actions derive from his limited intellect in courtly mannerisms. He does not care to change his mode of discourse. Following his courteous labeling of Perceval as “friend” and asking him to “dismount,” Arthur takes a dig at Perceval’s age and background: he stands as no more than a “naïve boy” (393). He adds in a positive comment about his uncertain noble birth and potential to be “brave and wise,” but he lists the negative first—despite the use of subordinate conjunction “though.” This sentence structure prioritizes Perceval’s status as “naïve” and reinforces Arthur’s conception of him as merely a simple Welsh boy (393).

Later on in this above, excerpted passage, Arthur evokes the longstanding argument of nature versus nurture in the near conditional, “if his [Perceval’s] folly has come from poor teaching, [then] he can still prove brave and wise” (393). The phraseology here supposes that Arthur maintains some degree of hope for “saving” the boy from his ignorance by knighting him. The rest of Arthur’s commentary, however, pushes this hope to the background as he deftly exclaims how Perceval will “be dead or crippled” because “he’s so simple-minded and uncouth” (397). Arthur zeros in on Perceval’s intelligence and mannerisms after analyzing his physicality and personality because both mattered when assessing the overall ability of a knight. Perceval’s noble birth, however, stands as the key to his knighthood. Arthur made Perceval a knight, and Perceval dedicated his all to becoming a faithful knight, only at the expense of losing a part of his personality, and perhaps, identity.

Perceval’s change in character and his silence in wake of the Fisher King’s procession connects with and contrasts to his initial depiction as an “uncouth” Welsh boy. Note his aforementioned, brash request to be knighted, and then the curious questioning by his lodgers as to whether “[he] is a mute” (404). Between these two events, Perceval, who Chrétien always emphasizes is a “youth,” learns traditional courtly manners, gains a new set of clothes (401), fights Anguingueron (409) and Clamadeu (417), rescues a castle from starvation (412), all the while holding his tongue. Eventually, Perceval realizes that he must return to his mother and leave “his beautiful love Blancheflor” who he picked up during the above delineated exploits (417). On his way to reunite with his mother, Perceval stumbles upon the titular grail in the castle of the Fisher King. During the grail procession, Chrétien spares no narrative criticism. The procession begins with the passing of a white lance, candelabra, and grail. After each item passes by Perceval, he fails to question why, even after the procession repeats. Chrétien’s commentary during this scene highlights Perceval’s impressionable nature, calling attention to the “admonishment given by the gentleman” or “wise gentleman’s advice” that Perceval keeps “in his heart” (420, 421). This “gentleman,” Gornemant of Gohort, appears in Chrétien’s three main, and near identical criticisms of Perceval: that is, Perceval “refrained from asking” out of fear “that if he asked they [the Fisher King and fellow guests] would consider him uncouth” (420). Curiously, this is the second appearance of “uncouth” as a supposedly negative adjective tied to Perceval as a character, and looking at the historical definition of the word to align with Chrétien’s timeframe meant merely “unknown, unfamiliar, or strange” (OED). Retrospectively, “strangeness” should not be a problem or character flaw, but Chrétien thought otherwise. With the passing of the grail, though, Chrétien states another characteristic of Perceval, possibly residual curiosity from his bumbling ignorance that he happily voiced prior to his teaching, “[Perceval] saw the grail pass by completely uncovered before him…he wanted to know; he said to himself that he would be sure to ask one of the court squires before he let thereSo the question was put off and he set his mind to drinking and eating” (421, emphasis mine). Perceval wants to know, and that makes a key distinction between being indifferent, a “marvel,” or just not having the audacity to speak out or question out of fear.

Chrétien’s commentary on Perceval’s lack of initiative and his check on himself to fit into societally acceptable behavior emphasizes his change but also the extent of the hold this “gentleman” had on Perceval—he shaped Perceval, boxing him into his own norm. Perceval forgets the value in speaking out, a trait he frequently used in the first half of the tale. In this instance, the mode shifts from a creation of Perceval as a character to an onslaught of narration. Chrétien relays Perceval’s many missed opportunities, and this narration does not necessarily espouse a tone of derision; if anything, Chrétien’s humor comes through.

In the introduction to the collection containing Perceval, William W. Kibler notes how Chrétien’s use of humor “give[s] the impression of a real discussion” and shows his ability to “incorporate keenly observed realistic details into the most fantastic adventures” (17). This trait carries into Chrétien’s brilliant narrative quips in Perceval: “It is a difficult task to teach a fool” (395); “If anyone were to tell it again it would be boring and wearisome” (398); “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401); and “I could tell you all about it if I made that my purpose, but I do not want to waste my efforts, since one word is as good as twenty” (414). Assessing the pagination of these excerpted lines of narration shows that Chrétien writes with leisure, and perhaps, to entertain himself as much as the reader3. Contextually, these quips read as humorous, and the language breaks up the narration, directly addressing the audience. While Chrétien maintains free reign to insert commentary and move or direct the discourse, Perceval does not. As a character of his own creation, Chrétien silences Perceval, especially considering the Fisher King’s grail procession. Chrétien’s ultimate quip foreshadows Perceval’s failure4, and calls for an even level between silence and brash exclamations/demands: Chrétien inserts a narrative quip as foreshadow, commenting on Perceval’s silence, and calling for some middle ground: “Yet I fear that this may be to his misfortune, for I have heard it said that at times it is just as wrong to keep too silent as to talk too much. Whether for good or for ill he did not ask or inquire anything of them” (421).

Moving from Perceval’s character arch to Chrétien’s actual narration brings to light one filmic adaptation of this grail cycle, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (henceforth, MPHG). Chrétien created the grail story in Perceval, and his text serves as the bedrock for other grail cycles. As Professor Elizabeth Murrell notes that any discussion of MPHG, “must be informed by the numerous versions of the various stories that compose the grail cycle and that fill the historical space between Chrétien and the production of the film” (51). She calls attention to the varying versions of the grail procession seen across centuries from Sir Thomas Malory to Milton, but for sake of conciseness, and to stick within the bounds of this paper’s thesis, the focus remains on Chrétien’s Perceval and how it relates to MPHG.

The surrealist humor in MPHG tests audiences much like Chrétien’s quips—Python humor is rooted in intellectual and linguistic puns, and some of the jokes may come off as absurd rather than funny. Regardless, that humor augments the film from a low budget British import to a defense of humor as a medium for challenging political discourse, defending its own absurdity; as medieval film specialist Kevin J. Harty states, “this silly film is by no means a trivial one” (147). The social significance of this humor, especially when considered from a political standpoint, serves a key purpose: humor drops the barriers inevitably raised with political discourse. Consider Terry Gilliam’s comment on MPHG, “humor is a great test, as well as a great defense” (Meuwese 56). The “test” and “defense” in Gilliam’s quote refer to the “crude” or “irreverent” animation in MPHG, but the quote also speaks volumes for the film as an “interpretation of the medieval and the modern” and as a culturally significant commentary on issues of “justice, violence, and desire” (Harty 147).

MPHG serves an important modern interpretation of Perceval. As a cult classic, its many one-liners rank as cultural mainstays5. Indeed, Professor Greg M. Smith observes that the “picaresque structure of Arthurian tales dovetailed” with the Python sketch comedy, creating nonlinear “self-enclosed sketches,” and these “structural characteristics” made the film “a series of ‘quotable’ moments” for “fans” to “integrate…into their lives” (72). To go along with Chrétien’s quips and (foreshadowing) narration, MPHG features three narrative interludes between scenes five and six, 23 and 24, 31 and 32, and importantly humorous one-liners throughout. During the second narrative interlude6, the narrator and several of the main characters of the film directly address the audience with an exclamatory “Get on with it!” a line resonating with Chrétien’s “I’ll say no more about the meal” (401) or “I do not want to waste my efforts” (414). Bringing in MPHG, draws from Professor Elizabeth Murrell’s paper, “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Murrell positions Perceval as MPHG’s Arthur. Looking at the humor of inherent in Perceval’s character in Chrétien and comparing him King Arthur, in MPHG serves as a kind of play on the current state of affairs: even the most chivalric, noble, king of kings can be made fun of, and so must the orange buffoon in Office of the President of the United States; citizens need not be silent to tyranny; they must satirize it, and though MPHG is “not really satirizing anything specific” (Sims), both works maintain political undertones.

MPHG parallels Perceval—the former draws from latter as source material. Chrétien wrote in a time of political discord. MPHG first aired in the United States in 1975, three years after Watergate7. Both use humor in their narration or allow their characters to voice humorous one-liners, but the silencing of Perceval in the grail procession, a scene solely found in Chrétien, marks an important difference. Murrell finds the tension in both works derives from “the clash of the authority of the parent (the domestic) and the authority of the king (the political or public) when there is no mediating discourse” (55). As aforesaid, Chrétien calls for a middle ground in his foreshadowing narration in the grail procession. The United States, in 2017, needs a middle ground. In a sense, citizens largely begin active political life as “uncouth youths” like Perceval. Society expects perfection, and a “gentleman” like Gornemant comes in to correct, educate outspoken youths, effectively silencing options most different to his own, so said youth never again speaks boldly to persons above his status (split infinitive for your pleasure). They become indoctrinated into a societal situation knowing how to behave in traditional discursive situations but not knowing how to assert their own identity, their own options to fully participate (in society, or Socratic question and answer situations as seen in both Perceval and MPHG).

After Perceval’s failure to speak, he wakes to a silent castle, leaves, and comes across a lady, his cousin, weeping over the death of a knight. She begins a series of questions and answers with Perceval. She asks him what he saw at the grail procession, and Perceval gives her fragmentary answers leading to the important question, “‘Did you ask the people where they were going in this manner?’” to which Perceval answers, “‘No question came from my mouth’” (425). Following this statement, Chrétien reveals Perceval by name, calling him Perceval the Welshman (then the lady calls him Perceval the wretched). Supposedly, Perceval had not known his name up to that point, but “although he did not know if that were true or not, he spoke the truth without knowing it” (425). This scene matches several scenes in MPHG, but “The Bridge Of Death” (Q: Stop! What is your name? A: It is Arthur, King of the Britons), “Constitutional Peasants” (Q: Who are the Britons? A: Well, we all are. We’re all Britons, and I am your king),8 and “The Witch Trail” (Q: How do you know she is a witch? A: She looks like one) scenes seem most apt in the exchange of information. And, whether rhetorical in some instances or not, these questions move along discourse and allow the sharing of information. In the case of MPHG, these questions receive answers that completely inverse the discourse or undermine the questioner, particularly in the case of the “Constitutional Peasant” scene, for the peasants render King Arthur’s authority null, much like pre-educated Perceval’s run-in with the king.

These two works negotiate different modes of discourse, for Chrétien excessive speech or excessive quietness result in failure, or as Perceval’s cousin relates “much suffering” and a kind of “sin” (425); for the Pythons, not poking fun at authority results in a failure of their comedic art. Both works satirize the present. Their shared humor makes it a point that the petty differences in politics and authority today, the silencing of different opinions and not listening yields a kind of injustice. Satire in art always serves a key purpose in society, and Perceval and MPHG both attest to the fact that power struggles will always plague modern society—said struggles date back to the “medieval,” and yet, like Perceval, citizens remain silent, become labeled as a silent majority, content with half listening to some autocratic figurehead in a wig.


Notes

  1. This quote is taken from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (MPHG)…In my continual quest to find validity in my major or the importance of it—I found myself in medieval literature this semester. I can’t say I enjoyed every work we read, but to pass the time and cope with the fact that I had to do the readings to get a good grade and be a good student, I tried to find some iota of humor in everything we read. I didn’t know the course centered on Arthurian literature, much less romances, but when I discovered the variations of the traditional Arthurian myth and that romances began as simply texts written in French, I felt a bit better about being in this class. For this final exam (that I did not want to write because I am graduating and heading for my undetermined future in London and law school), I give you a loose analysis of what I feel the function of one tale we read. I also wanted to include the only thing I thought of time and time again this semester: MPHG...one of the most preeminent films of this past century, a work of pure comic genius. But, since Trump began his lame ass presidency this semester (I’m not trying to make fun of people who can’t walk “right” or of donkeys, they substitute for a harsher expletive that doesn’t belong in an academic paper), I had to root this whole paper in this depressing context. In this contextualization, I discovered ties throughout text, film, and politics, and something came out of this—namely this lame term paper that you probably won’t read all the way through, but that’s ok. I focused on The Story of the Grail (Perceval) because that story was hilarious and served as a major source text for the Pythons in crafting MPHG. Hopefully, you found my analysis enjoyable. Thanks.
  2. For sake of redundancy, unless otherwise prefaced with a different author, all of the following in-text citations come from: De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print [cited below]. As this text is a prose version of Chrétien’s French poetry, I have given the page numbers rather than the line numbers.
  3. Note the headnote (pun intended) to Perceval “thanking” Count Philip of Flanders for his patronage (381). See Adolf for the historical context; supposedly, there was a political situation involving aristocracy, Philip of Flanders, and the monarch.
  4. For further commentary on this and an analysis of Perceval’s “failure” as criminal, see McCullough: “His obstinate questioning and his resistance to being questioned are interpreted as a sign of his sauvagerie and naivete, as ignorance of good manners. It is important to note that in this scene Perceval asks first about the lance that a knight, who looks to him like God himself, carries: that is, he asks the precise question that he refrains from asking at the castle. Perceval will soon discover, however, that his postponement of the question constitutes a crime” (52, emphasis mine).
  5. Notable lines include: “How could a 5-ounce bird possibly carry a 1-pound coconut?” “Please! This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.” “Look, that rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s a killer!’ ‘It’s just a flesh wound.” “I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries!” “Oh! Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!” “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”
  6. Excerpted narrative interlude: “The wise Sir Bedeveire was the first to join King Arthur’s knights, but other illustrious names were soon to follow: Sir Launcelot the Brave; Sir Galahad the Pure; and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Launcelot who had nearly fought the Dragon of Agnor, who had nearly stood up to the vicious Chicken of Bristol and who had personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill; and the aptly named Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.  Together they formed a band whose names and deeds were to be retold throughout the centuries, the Knights of the Round Table.”
  7. See BBC News, Glass, and King.
  8. Excerpted scene below:

ARTHUR:  Old woman!

DENNIS:  Man!

ARTHUR: Old Man, sorry.  What knight live in that castle over there?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I’m thirty seven — I’m not old!

ARTHUR:  Well, I can’t just call you `Man’.

DENNIS:  Well, you could say `Dennis’.

ARTHUR:  Well, I didn’t know you were called `Dennis.’

DENNIS:  Well, you didn’t bother to find out, did you?

ARTHUR:  I did say sorry about the `old woman,’ but from the behind

you looked–

DENNIS:  What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior!

ARTHUR:  Well, I AM king…

DENNIS:  Oh king, eh, very nice.  An’ how’d you get that, eh?  By

exploitin’ the workers — by ‘angin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma

which perpetuates the economic an’ social differences in our society!

If there’s ever going to be any progress–

WOMAN:  Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here.  Oh — how d’you do?

ARTHUR:  How do you do, good lady.  I am Arthur, King of the Britons.

Who’s castle is that?

WOMAN:  King of the who?

ARTHUR:  The Britons.

WOMAN:  Who are the Britons?

ARTHUR:  Well, we all are. we’re all Britons and I am your king.

WOMAN:  I didn’t know we had a king.  I thought we were an autonomous

collective.

DENNIS:  You’re fooling yourself.  We’re living in a dictatorship.

A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes–

WOMAN:  Oh there you go, bringing class into it again.

DENNIS:  That’s what it’s all about if only people would–

ARTHUR:  Please, please good people.  I am in haste.  Who lives

in that castle?

WOMAN:  No one live there.

ARTHUR:  Then who is your lord?

WOMAN:  We don’t have a lord.

ARTHUR:  What?

DENNIS:  I told you.  We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune.  We take

it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

ARTHUR:  Yes.

DENNIS:  But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified

at a special biweekly meeting.

ARTHUR:  Yes, I see.

DENNIS:  By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  –but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more–

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!  I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN:  Order, eh — who does he think he is?

ARTHUR:  I am your king!

WOMAN:  Well, I didn’t vote for you.

ARTHUR:  You don’t vote for kings.

WOMAN:  Well, ‘ow did you become king then?

ARTHUR:  The Lady of the Lake,

[angels sing]

her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur

from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,

Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.

[singing stops]

That is why I am your king!

DENNIS:  Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

is no basis for a system of government.  Supreme executive power

derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical

aquatic ceremony.

ARTHUR:  Be quiet!

DENNIS:  Well you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power

just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an empereror just

because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they’d

put me away!

ARTHUR:  Shut up!  Will you shut up!

DENNIS:  Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.

ARTHUR:  Shut up!

DENNIS:  Oh!  Come and see the violence inherent in the system!

HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!

ARTHUR:  Bloody peasant!

DENNIS:  Oh, what a give away.  Did you here that, did you here that,

eh?  That’s what I’m on about — did you see him repressing me,

you saw it didn’t you?

9. Some of the “works” in my Works Cited were not quoted directly in my essay, but I found them useful when preparing to write it, so I left them in because I did honestly read/watch/listen to them…well I did skim the Khanh Le thesis…


Works Cited

Adolf, Helen. “A Historical Background for Chrétien’s Perceval.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 58.3 : 597-620. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

De Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail (Perceval).” Arthurian Romances. Ed. William W. Kibler. London: Penguin, 2005. 381-494. Print.

“Echoes of Watergate Resurface as Trump-Russia Links Probed.” BBC News. BBC, 06 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Glass, Ira. “615: The Beginning of Now.” Audio blog post. This American Life. Chicago Public Media, 28 Apr. 2017. Web. 4 May 2017.

Harty, Kevin J. Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. Print.

King, Colbert I. “Russia Is Trump’s Watergate. Will He React like Nixon?” The Washington Post. WP Company, 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 04 May 2017.

Le, Khanh. Humor, Romance, Horror and Epic in Text and Film of Arthurian Legend Adaptations. Thesis. CUNY City College, 2014. New York: CUNY Academic Works, 2014. Print.

McCullough, Ann. “Criminal Naivety: Blind Resistance and the Pain of Knowing in Chrétien De Troyes’s Conte Du Graal.” Modern Language Review 101.1 : 48-61. ProQuest. Web. 10 May 2017.

Meuwese, Martine. “The Animation of Marginal Decorations in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’” Arthuriana, vol. 14, no. 4, 2004, pp. 45–58., http://www.jstor.org/stable/27870655.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. By Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Perf. Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2002.

Murrell, Elizabeth. “History Revenged: Monty Python Translates Chrétien De Troyes’s Perceval, Or The Story of the Grail (Again).” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 50, no. 1, 1998, pp. 50–62., http://www.jstor.org/stable/20688168.

Sims, David. “How Monty Python and the Holy Grail Influenced Film by Satirizing It.”The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 May 2017.

Smith, Greg M. “‘To Waste More Time, Please Click Here Again:’ Monty Python and the Quest for Film/CD-ROM Adaptation.” On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology. New York: New York UP, 1999. 58-85. Print.

“uncouth, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 11 May 2017.

Wilderness, Faerie, and Character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

French Arthurian romances, like those of Chrétien de Troyes, often gloss over particulars of geography. Other romances involving Sir Gawain, in particular, follow suit; contrary to this, fitt II of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) highlights specific geography of Northern England. Certainly, scholars elaborated on “þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” before (see Elliott and Rudd), and yet, the particular line and the word itself demands further elaboration alongside how the wilderness, augmented by faerie, interweaves with the poem’s two titular characters.

The Gawain Poet (henceforth simply, poet) initially describes the forest in abnormal clarity and then muddles over the rest of the details, including perilous events that befall Sir Gawain. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) features the line “In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale” from SGGK (ln 701) in definition 1b of “wilderness.” This example supports the following, historical (c1400), definition of wilderness as “a wild or uncultivated region or tract of land, uninhabited, or inhabited only by wild animals; ‘a tract of solitude and savageness’” (OED). The denotation of “wilderness” deserves examination because of the poet’s irregular geographic specificity and inclusion of faerie elements–the Green Knight himself–within said location. Indeed, the poet names actual places, particularly those in the North of England like Wirral and Cheshire, but also Wales and the Isles of Anglesey with all their accompanying topographical detail (see ln 695-705).

The OED and the glossary in SGGK both define “wilderness” or its equivalents, “wasteland” and “forest” as “uninhabited,” “deserted” (242, 245). And yet, however abstract in the poem, faerie spectacles and creatures, inhabit the wilderness of Wirral; “uninhabited” merely signifies “uninhabited” by specific types of living beings. Though, Gawain encounters inhabitants of the uninhabited (see ln 719-735), including the Green Knight, who do not satisfy this condition of the word. “Wilderness,” as a noun, labels and encompasses an area, but does not assume habitation by faerie creatures; neither does the basal meaning–free of symbolic suggestion–of “wasteland” or “forest.” The OED defines “wilderness” as uninhabited but qualifies it as perhaps “inhabited only by wild animals.” Extending wild to encompass faerie, though, fits with the poem.

Further inlaying the wild with faerie, the poet substitutes “wyldernesse” with “wasteland” in fitt IV to reference the wilderness of Wirral. Noting SGGK as a Ricardian work, critic Roger Caillois’ commentary on fantasy in the “Middle Ages,” proves useful. Caillois described the period as “steeped in the supernatural” noting the excessive “continuity between people’s beliefs and their certainties about another invisible world ruled by the gods and daemons” (quoted in Durix 14). Following this logic, reality fused with faerie in this period. The wild, too, conflated with faerie allowing various descriptions to affix to the forest of Wirral, making it mystical and contradictory (uninhabited and inhabited) place, but real nonetheless. The principle faerie aspect of SGGK, namely the Green Knight himself and the beheading game he controls, makes the tale. To use a Tolkienian term, they function as a type of “arresting strangeness,” drawing the reader and protagonist Gawain into the depths of the wilderness. Upon passing into the wilderness, Gawain encounters faerie elements of lesser import but still worthy of brief commentary: considering the poet’s comment on the “wild” beasts Gawain fights on his way [(“Hit were tore for to telle of the tenthe dole” (ln 719)] the Green Knight deserves focus as the titular faerie being and not the accessory creatures like the noted “wormes,” “wolves,” and “wodwos” (ln 720-721). The Green Knight is both the wild and faerie. The creatures are both wild and faerie, but as the poet does not dwell on them, this paper will not either.

The Green Knight, denied of a solid, identifying name until the final fitt, uses a color to define himself, and does not disclose the location of his chapel, again, favoring color to constitute tangibility. Faerie demands tangibility–to venture forth in a world against or partially unhinged from reality instantiates a suspension of disbelief that gives way to some degree of control, but faerie’s “arresting strangeness” supersedes all actions. Green, as a symbolic representation, qualifies him as a knight and serves as the only clue to his incomplete identity. The Green Knight links with and personifies his environment. He is of both wilderness and faerie because both belong to and define him. The Green Knight announces himself to Gawain as such, saying, “‘Bertilak de Hautdesert I hat in this londe,’” (ln 2445). The prepositional phrase in his actual name (Bertilak of the high desert) and the adjectival qualifier in his pseudonym (the Green Knight) tie him to his environment: here wild bridges with faerie and makes him, as a character, more tangible. Again, Bertilak, as a wild man is from and of the wilderness. He also parades into King Arthur’s court to initiate a beheading game as a faerie spectacle. Both of his names combine to complete his identity as intertwined with his environment. Roots in actual geography allows for an ideal suspension of disbelief, so the Green Knight and his faerie elements (e.g. his green skin and aura, girth, and invincibility) augment the setting by imbuing it with faerie.

Equating wild with faerie reinforces the setting of SGGK. Faerie isolates individuals by pushing them to the limit of their imaginations and forcing them to question reality. Readers question faerie just as Gawain questions his identity. Gawain undergoes a kind of voyage of the soul as he enters into the wild. He, courtesy of his chivalric loyalty, undertakes a wholly unfamiliar task in beheading the Green Knight and then acquiescing to his game (ln 495). Gawain’s whole self thereafter seems enmeshed in an uninhabited place both physically and mentally. The poet continually reinforces Gawain’s solitude throughout the poem, making him a geographic isolate despite the realistic Northern English backdrop. The poet’s description of Gawain on the way into Wirral, specifically of him wandering hopelessly alone (ln 695, 735, 749) connects with the OED’s sub-definition of wilderness as “a tract of solitude and savageness” and circles back to the concluding encounter with the Green Knight (see ln 2245).

The nature of the beheading game and the physical environment itself deprive Gawain of companionship (except for God), making him vulnerable to self-doubt. The Green Knight and his wife question Gawain’s identity: the wife accuses his courteous reputation when he politely refuses her (ln 1293), and then in a parallel line, the Green Knight frankly declares, “Thou art no Gawayn” (ln 2270). Gawain’s name becomes a topic of conversation, which calls his reputation into question, and Gawain must reconcile that as an un-inhabitant, fully alone in faerie infused wild. Furthermore, when the beheading game reaches its denouement and Gawain enters the Green Chapel, the Green Knight states: “Iwysse, thou art welcom, wyye, to my place/…And we ar in this valay verayly oure one” (ln 2240, 2245). The Green Knight welcomes Gawain to “my [his] place,” again claiming ownership over his domain while emphasizing their state of solitude. Gawain acted and faced the Green Knight alone save for the presence of a girdle courtesy of Bertilak’s wife.

Gawain, as a literary character acts as the quintessential knight with his perfect courtesy, but the many poets that wrote him into existence presumably based off of the ideal qualities of real knights. Gawain inside a real geographic location though makes no sense, but placing him in Wirral, a real forest/wilderness, imbues said place with story, faerie. This placement also characterizes Gawain as a fanciful character against the backdrop of reality. The poet forefronts faerie elements and location around Gawain. The Green Knight and his embodiment of nature first deprives Gawain of his companions, makes him question his identity, and then forces Gawain to carry a burden of his redefinition as a product of his environment. He carries with him a badge, the girdle. He carries with him a new-formed identity. His roots extend into the soil and enforce his bones. He survives the beheading game as no longer a forgotten, isolated inhabitant of an uninhabited land, but as a character not so dissimilar from the Green Knight in terms of his geographic links.


Works Cited

Battles, Paul. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Peterborough: Broadview, 2012. Print.

Caillois, Roger. Anthologie Du Fantastique. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. 9-10. Print.

Durix, Jean-Pierre. “The Status of ‘Fantasy’ in Maori Literature in English: The Case of Witi Ihimaera.” European Journal of English Studies. Vol. 2. N.p.: n.p., 1998. 11. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Elliott, Ralph W. V. The Gawain Country: Essays on the Topography of Middle English Alliterative Poetry. Leeds: U of Leeds, School of English, 1984. Print.

Rudd, Gillian. “‘The Wilderness of Wirral’ in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’” Arthuriana 23.1 (2013): 52-65. JSTOR. Web. 7 Mar. 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 139. Print.

“wild, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 12 March 2017.

“wilderness, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 6 March 2017.

Possession and Fatherhood in “Rappacini’s Daughter”

Narratives, with all their complexity, detail, and singular characters, explore what William Empson calls a “complex word.” For Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” its full title qualifies as the complex word, and the entire story works it out. The title sets up a possessive: Rappaccini, the father, literally, by punctuation, possesses his daughter, Beatrice. Hawthorne selectively writes his title to position Rappaccini, from the outset, as the main character while objectively characterizing Beatrice.

The title defines Beatrice’s identity, for she literally is Rappaccini’s daughter, but “Beatrice” easily substitutes for that definition. Replacing a definition of Beatrice with Beatrice’s actual name, though, forefronts her human identity, agency and does not include her identity as an experiment. Beatrice functions in the story as a central object affecting three male characters, limiting her holistic characterization. Hawthorne introduces two of the three primary male characters before introducing Beatrice, and she finally enters the narrative when her father summons her (‘Beatrice! Beatrice!’ [2657]). She first voices her identity, “‘Here am I, my father! What would you?’” (2657), but the context curtails her exclamatory reply, especially considering the elaborate description of her beauty following it. Accordingly, the possessive title elucidates her objective characterization as her father’s experimental object, and however problematic, labels the short story well.

Beatrice begins and ends the story as Rappaccini’s experiment. Rappaccini’s skewed sense of identity as a father factors into his need to possess Beatrice. Possessing becomes his way of protection, but Rappaccini’s perverted testament of love deprives Beatrice of a “normal” existence. Rappaccini believes his daughter, as a female, requires some defense mechanism. When Beatrice objects to her father’s “fatal science” (2674) for poisoning her life and love prospects, he says to her:

‘What mean you, foolish girl? Dost thou deem it misery to be endowed with marvellous gifts, against which no power nor strength could avail an enemy? Misery, to be able to quell the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as thou art beautiful? Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none’ (2675)

Rappacini misunderstood his daughter’s heart and desires—she alone maintains the agency to make her own decisions, but her father corrupts her inborn free will via possessive fatherhood. Beatrice proves her resilience, though, and capacity to capitalize on her less than ideal situation as an experiment in her retort: “I would fain have been loved, not feared” (2675). She dies criticizing her father for possessing and poisoning her existence. Certainly, Rappaccini aimed to better equip his daughter with “marvellous gifts” to battle oppressive patriarchal society, but in manipulating her, he crosses the line between father and scientist.


Works Cited

Empson, William. “The Structure of Complex Words.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 56, no. 2, 1948, pp. 230–250.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Rappacini’s Daughter.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. By Paul Lauter, Richard Yarborough, and John Alberti. Vol. 2. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. 2653-2676. Print.

Changing Notions of Urban Māori Identity

By the mid-1970s, many Māori youths left their traditional communities for the city to “establish themselves economically and socially among Pākehā [white, usually European/Western]” (Houkamau 189) in part because of a greater economic recession New Zealand endured at the time (Henderson 77). This led to greater visibility of Māori in the urban “Pākehā world,” causing some tension that ultimately lead to a Māori cultural renaissance— revival of tikanga (Māori customs, traditions) and a re-assertion of land rights. In 1972, the iwi (tribe) Ngā Tamato submitted the Māori Language Petition to Parliament to support the teaching of Te Reo (Māori language) and tikanga in schools (Hayward). In 1975, the New Zealand Parliament formed the Waitangi Tribunal for Māori to address grievances and claims against the Crown for violations of the Māori language version of the Treaty of Waitangi, a key document that established relations between Pākehā (non-Māori, usually European) and Māori on February 6, 1840 (Allen 115). The Treaty, thereafter, became recognized by the government as New Zealand’s founding document, developing greater respect for a bicultural New Zealand (Hayward). The Springbok Tour of 1981, the first anti-nuclear protest of 1983, and the monumentally important song, “Poi E” of 1984 (heavily used in the film Boy, see below) followed these major steps towards a fairer treatment of Māori, and ushered in a “time of exciting and sometimes bewildering ferment” (Henderson 77). But, the Māori Language Act of 1987 proved especially important for Māori, conferring official language status to Te Reo (Angelo 1085). These historical happenings grew to shape the identity of New Zealand and the multiple identities, especially the Māori identity, within the nation-state.

boy_3Capitalizing on this period of cultural renaissance, Māori-Jewish director, Taika Waititi set his 2010 film, Boy, in 1984; the film has become the highest-grossing film in New Zealand in part for its accurate portrayal of struggling Māori (Henderson 92). The film captures a boyish charm in all of its characters while constructing a kind of spirituality and beauty around being a traditional Māori versus being assimilated into Pākehā culture—here, the question of identity comes center stage.

Boy, begins with a hastily written question on a faded green chalkboard, “Who am I?” only to have the titular boy (who goes by the same name: Boy) answer. He lives in rural Waihau Bay, goes to school on his marae (courtyard, traditional Māori gathering place) with his brother, Rocky, learns Te Reo, and respects Māori tikanaga. Boy objectively characterizes his absent father, Alamein, as a successful man in the “Western” or Pākehā sense, but when Alamein first enters the narrative, he subjectively characterizes himself as a lost boy. After his wife dies, Alamein separates from his children, moves to the city, forms a gang (The Crazy Horses), and serves a prison sentence. He has returned to his sons to “spend quality time” with them, and yet he has an ulterior motive to dig up a field in attempt to find a bag of money he buried before being imprisoned.After playing with their father by the beach, Boy and Rocky hold a noteworthy conversation: Boy explains that if they find the money, then they could move to the city, wear fancy clothes, swim in swimming pools, and ride around in nice cars. Rocky, unconvinced, flatly says he does not wish to go to the city and he does not need swimming pools because he can swim in the ocean.

After playing with their father by the beach, Boy and Rocky hold a noteworthy conversation: Boy explains that if they find the money, then they could move to the city, wear fancy clothes, swim in swimming pools, and ride around in nice cars. Rocky, unconvinced, flatly says he does not wish to go to the city and he does not need swimming pools because he can swim in the ocean.

boy_2

The bulk of the narrative centers around the distinct dynamic between Māori father and son, especially within the socio-historical context of 1980s New Zealand, a time, as aforementioned, of ongoing resurgence of Māori identity—Alamein has made bad decisions, but he does not shield his children from them. With the return of their father, Boy and Rocky, must choose whether to dismantle and rebuild their conception of him or to dismiss their father as a role model of how to be Māori.

Towards the end of the movie, Boy goes to his mother’s grave. After smoking a cigarette and drinking a can of beer, he falls backwards from a bridge into a body of water (apparently his river, see pepeha below). His cousin wakes him into consciousness shouting, “Boy! Boy! You’ve got to come home!” Boy then confronts his father with the remnants of the $800NZD his goat ate, immediately distancing himself from his father. The film ends with Boy and his cousins cleaning up the house. Boy finds the Crazy Horse logo once sewn to his father’s jacket laying on the floor and discovers his wood carving, newly finished by Alamein waiting for him on a chair in the garage. Boy then goes to the cemetery with Rocky, and the final scene features the two of them reuniting with a mourning Alamein. Boy supplies viewers with a life-story, narrative model of identity, giving viewers a snapshot into one of Boy’s most formative experiences: his coming to grips with being Māori; his deadbeat father nags at his whakapapa (genealogy), grinding a chink in his Māori identity.

Māori whakapapa does not start with people in their lineage. Whakapapa begins with the land, the mountain their particular iwi bows to and the body of water they value; all of these natural features form the basis of the linguistic structure called pepeha. Lying within the greater mihimihi (introductory speech) framework, a pepeha translates as an aspect of self-introduction. Pepeha must be delivered with “both humility and respect” because it grounds individual identity in their ancestral land, defining them as tangata whenua (people of the land) (Potiki). The normal structure of pepeha includes an individual’s mountain, river, clan/sub-tribe, tribe, canoe, ancestor, family, marae, and parents which makes pepeha linguistically interesting: establishing identity with physical landmarks ensures a type of stability, but it also isolates those who identify as urban Māori. Being reared apart, estranged from “their” mountain, river, clan, etc. disjoints the mind from any spirituality or ownership of the land, especially when city life becomes the replacement.

Using pepeha as a Māori framework of identity excludes many individuals whose parents may have neglected or undermined their ability to learn of or appreciate their connection to the land and their whakapapa. Able to mature within a marae environment, Boy seemingly knew the many facets of his pepeha and appreciated his identity as tangata whenua even though he, like his father, aspired to the Western/Pākehā idea of success. Alamein’s experience mirrored Boy’s, but Alamein failed to grow up and embrace his identity as Māori or tangata whenua. The characters of Boy and Alamein respectfully occupy two approaches to reconcile being or identifying as Māori in the modern state of New Zealand. In a sense, his adolescent perception of self-conflicted with his aspirations to be a “brown Pākehā.” Alamein abandoned his traditional carvings and hometown for the city, joining a gang to drink and smoke marijuana in the process. Though his actions must be qualified by the death of his wife in childbirth, Alamein’s plight and urban, Western lifestyle reflects actions of Māori in the 1980s.

Prevailing concepts of what it means to be Māori depend on “strong associations with whanau (family) hapu (extended family) and iwi (tribe)” as well as “mutual responsibilities” within their kin group (Houkamau and Sibley 10). Despite this, in his two-year (1987-1988) ethnographic study of Māori adolescents around Boy’s age, Dr. Toon van Meijl discovered that for most of his informants, “tribal affiliations were eclipsed by an attachment to the town or city in which they grew up” (924). Adding to their conflicting sense of identity, van Meijl also observed male Māori preferring to skip culture classes (considering Māori culture and language archaic) or sitting in the back to talk “about topics that interested them more, such as the pub, smoking marijuana, rugby union, or TV programmes” (922). To these individuals, ascribing to the “archaic” Māori culture and language implied only a greater likelihood of being unemployed and imprisoned (van Meijl 924). “Māoriness,” then, did not equate with spirituality, a sense of their position as tangata whenua. Perhaps knowing, visiting, or living near natural structures of an individual’s pepeha safeguards them from the woes of Western society.

Boy himself, by his nickname and demeanor, symbolizes every young, pre-adolescent and adolescent Māori boy like the ones in van Meijl’s study who struggle to fashion a narrative of identity “among the social groupings and racial-ethnic categories that exist in [his] society” (Webber 17). Not many of these youths, only about a third of them, feel positive about their culture or feel a deep pride in being, “traditional tangata whenua” (Webber 22). Boy’s experiences epitomize this struggle—he understands and speaks Te Reo, follows tikanga by washing his hands with water after visiting the dead and praying before eating (Higgins), yet he wants for his father, an urban Māori, only to be disappointed. Many Māori depend on family and friendships to validate and inform the formation of their identity (Webber 26, Houkamau 193), so Boy rightly becomes disillusioned with tikanga when he sees his dad deny his own “Māoriness”:

Alamein: Hey, whose is this mean-as carving?
Boy: Oh, mine.
Alamein: Yeah. Looks just like E.T.
Boy: It’s based on one of yours, but it ain’t finished yet.
Alamein: Yeah, I know, ‘cause you ain’t done the eyes. That’s the last thing you do…them eyes.
Boy: Do you still carve?
Alamein: Nup. I ain’t got time for that. (Sighs) I’m a busy man. (Smokes) Mmm. [sic] (Waititi)

Rather than a homogenous identity, “Māoriness” emerges from a “myriad of sometimes conflicting ideas and images around what it means to be Māori” (Houkamau 184). Socio-historical processes shaped New Zealand’s topography, but as Boy came to realize about his father, personal enculturation matters just as much (Houkamau 184). Alamein equates a taonga (treasure) Māori tiki figure with a completely Western/Pākehā creation, E.T., but his son had no intention of mimicking a Pākehā alien. Boy based his own carving on one his father did when he still had his wife to ground him in his traditional Māori identity. Returning to van Meijl’s study, his informants did not mentally identify as Māori and simply regurgitated what their elders told them, initially abandoning any self-conception of identity (928). For some Māori, the process of “coming home” meaning, returning to their marae or ancestral lands, reinvigorates identity, but for others, like Alamein, this action reinforces a negative or unappealing aspect of identity.

These individuals possess a dialogical identity, and they experience negativity about their identity because of in-group hostility between “good Māori” and “bad Māori” (van Meijl 924, 926, 931), socio-economic injustice from the remnants of colonization (924), and improper portrayals of Māori in various mediums (922). Being dialogical in nature, however, makes the formation of their identity “involved in internal and external interchanges” which never reach a “final destination” (Hermans 35). Essentially, these individuals rely on conversations within themselves, but often external Western influences intervene with the internal root of being tangata whenua. In this fluid identity, meaningful connections with the land as the root of identity do prove to be insufficient markers considering that 84% of Māori live in cities (George 438), and yet a spirituality of the land prevails in the minds of their elders. If Boy has anything to say about this, then the youth, like Boy and Rocky, have the ability to resurrect and inherit the teachings of their grandmother—indeed, their father even begins to realize what he gave up in the end. When his money got eaten by a goat and his Pākehā friends abandoned him, he finished Boy’s carving and visited his wife’s grave. His whanau pulled him back up; Boy and Rocky together changed their father but also set a precedent to change the future of Māori.

Pākehā society wrote Alamein into the margins as a “lazy, irresponsible, wasteful, and childlike” subject in need of “Europeanization” (George 441). Alamein saw Pākehā material wealth and partially because of his economic situation, he left for the city for a chance to become the model of an assimilated urban Māori. He did not re-invent his identity; he merely tried to be a “brown Pākehā” because he had been raised within a “socio-historical climate that failed to endorse Māori rights and culture” (Houkamau 193). Alamein had already been far too entrenched in Pākehā culture before the cultural renaissance could reclaim his interest in Māori tikanga. Though, a hint of changing times comes out when Alamein replaced Pākehā material culture (money, marijuana) with his traditional Māori material culture (Boy’s carving). Alamein did not adhere to the prevailing notions of “authentic” indigenous identity. He did not follow his expectations to maintain connections to tikanga and ancestral lands (authentic) and instead went to live in the city and abandon his identity (inauthentic) (George 443).

Pākehā expect Māori to fit into their mold of being indigenous, “oppressively authentic” Māori expect those within their tribal structures to fit into a different mold of being, but individual identity cannot be patterned and shaped by external forces alone. Forming a better understanding of Māori identity and how individuals negotiate identity by having a dialogue within themselves and with society marks the changing notion of urban Māori. Many Māori want to keep their identity alive to prove their strength as an indigenous tangata whenua, and yet they become urbanized because Pākehā culture permeates their own and provides a near unavoidable alternative. Alamein’s “inauthentic” Māori self contrasts with Boy’s marae-grown seemingly “authentic” Māori self, but neither of their identities should be considered correct or incorrect, especially by Pākehā judgment. Pākehā thrust Māori into this situation of having to balance the obtrusive force of Pākehā material culture with their traditional Māori spirituality and associated material culture, but they do not and should not feel compelled to justify their existence to Pākehā or assimilate. Māori, as a group, form a sovereign body, and they, whether urban or not or somewhere in-between, alone possess the power to define themselves.

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Identity returns to the question behind Boy at the start of the film, “Who am I?” A multiplicity of identity exists, but Māori and Pākehā alike tend to refuse or undermine the urbanization of Māori. Those urbanized Alameins need acceptance, need a Boy who straddles both the Māori and Pākehā identities to reawaken the “authentic” Māori in them, but they need not be obligated to return to the marae to reclaim their identity. Boy, indeed the current populous of young Māori boys and girls, know both Pākehā and Māori worlds, but they still need guidance from their elders to inherit the tikanga that once set their people distinctly apart from their colonizers: whether they choose to maintain the spirituality behind tangata whenua or not, they inherit all that their ancestors left. Acknowledgement of the crisis within these individuals of their reconciling Māoriness with an interest in Pākehā culture will build a more inclusive and broader notion of Māori identity.

Works Cited

 Allen, Chadwick. Blood Narrative: Indigenous Identity in American Indian and Māori Literary and Activist Texts. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Angelo, Tony, and Elisabeth Perham. “Let Te Reo Speak: Granting Legal Personality To Te Reo Māori.” Victoria University Of Wellington Law Review 46.4 (2015): 1081-1109. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Boy. Dir. Taika Waititi. Prod. Ainsley Gardiner. Perf. James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone-Whitu, and Taika Waititi. Whenua Films, Unison Films, 2010. DVD.

George, Lily. “Expressions Of Māori Multiplicity In (Re)Connection To Ngā Taonga Tuku Iho.” Social Identities 18.4 (2012): 435-450. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Henderson, April K. “Maori Boys, Michael Jackson Dance Moves, and That 1984 Structure of Feeling.” MEDIANZ MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand 13.1 (2012): 77-96. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.

Hermans, Hubert J. M., and Giancarlo Dimaggio. “Self, Identity, and Globalization in times of Uncertainty: A Dialogical Analysis.” Review of General Psychology 11.1 (2007): 31-61. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Higgins, Rawinia. “Tangihanga – Death Customs – Understanding Tangihanga.” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. New Zealand Government, 14 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tangihanga-death-customs/page-1

Houkamau, Carla Anne. “Identity Construction And Reconstruction: The Role Of Socio-Historical Contexts In Shaping Maori Women’s Identity.” Social Identities 16.2 (2010): 179-196. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.

Potiki, Tuari, dir. “Mihimihi/Pepeha.” Māori at Otago. University of Otago, 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2016. http://maori.otago.ac.nz/reo-tikanga-treaty/te-reo/mihi

Van Meijl, Toon. “Multiple Identifications And The Dialogical Self: Urban Maori Youngsters And The Cultural Renaissance.” Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute 12.4 (2006): 917-933. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.

Webber, Melinda, Elizabeth McKinley, and John Hattie. “The Importance Of Race And Ethnicity: An Exploration Of New Zealand Pākehā, Māori, Samoan And Chinese Adolescent Identity.” New Zealand Journal Of Psychology 42.2 (2013): 17-28. Academic Search Premier. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.


Images: Grace, Matt, and Darryl Ward. Digital image. Boy. Whenua Films, Unison Films, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2016. http://boythefilm.com/downloads

Hobbits and Heroes

Hobbits value, or rather love, “peace and quiet and good tilled earth” (Tolkien, The Fellowship 1). They, with their “mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (2) delight in and value simple pleasures, never fighting amongst themselves in a “warlike” manner (5). They behave as Tolkien’s readers, and he speaks directly to this fact when describing these “burrowing, hole-dwelling” (Foster 257) creatures in the prolog to The Lord of the Rings.

It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves, or even than Dwarves. Of old, they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and disliked much the same things as Men did. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered (The Fellowship 2).

Here lies the crux of hobbits, their characterization as a distant cousin of readers; consider the inclusive pronouns “ours” and “us” particularly. Hobbits, with their frivolity and pettiness resemble people in the lives of readers, if not the readers themselves. Tolkien based the home of hobbits, the Shire, “more or less [on] a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” (Garth, “Sam” np.) to further align this species with Englishmen, readers in the primary world. He also meant to make heroes out of them. In their humility, passion for the quotidian, and a firm connection to the earth (they walk without shoes), hobbits maintain a strength and will to persevere against dire odds, not unlike the soldiers in World War I. Both dismantled the traditional idea of hero previously defined by Greek and Roman mythology and epics (especially those of the Germanic variety espousing “Northern courage”).

The “modern literary hero” rests on the literary perception of “modern,” meaning after World War I (1914-1918) and involving “a deliberate and radical break with some of the traditional bases…of Western culture” (Abrams 167). Epics, mythology, and literature at large, stand as some of the “traditional bases.” Studying Greek and Latin works at King Edward’s School as well as focusing on Classics and comparative philology at Oxford provided Tolkien with a superb knowledge of Western culture’s bedrock texts (Garth, “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien had knowledge enough of the action hero archetype (so pervasive in epics) to do as Abrams suggests: he modernized the hero, radically breaking (167) or rather uprooting this archetype to plant a new hero, a hobbit.

Tolkien’s service in WWI factored into his definition of hobbits as modern literary heroes. He saw his battalion decimated, took part in the battle of the Somme, and lost all but one of his close friends by 1918 (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3). Tolkien recalled his experience in the war enough to allude to WWI soldiers in his translation of Beowulf (another example of the “traditional bases”), providing the following commentary: “Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them” (Tolkien, “Beowulf” 113). Certainly a hero “is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance” (Abrams 77), but WWI showcased the psychological wreckage of an entire generation of young men caused by action in the war. Focusing on the soldier as a subjectively complex, thinking individual changed the idea of war as well as the hero. This focus made the hero modern by undercutting traditional heroes like Achilles, Aeneas, and Beowulf. Philosopher and classicist, Angie Hobbs, summarizing Plato and attempting to formally modernize the hero, sees passion as a replacement for the traditional martial valor in the characterization of heroes (Bragg). The modern hero, then, would maintain a greatness of soul, the refusal to submit, and a calm, strong endurance of misfortune (Bragg).

The four central hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, exemplify all three of these characteristics and deserve the title as passionate modern heroes. To Tolkien, WWI was an “utter stupid waste” and a “moral and spiritual” detriment “to those who have [had] to endure it” (Garth, “Writing” 3). But, soldiers endured the “animal horror,” serving passionately for their family, brotherhood, and nation (Garth, “Tolkien” 2-3) just as Sam served Frodo; the hobbits (collectively), Middle-earth. Sam proves to be the best example out of the hobbits for characterizing them as heroes, for he stands as a “reflexion” of Tolkien’s WWI batmen rolled into one (Garth, “Sam” np.). His dedication and perseverance baffles readers as he says to Frodo, “I know I can’t turn back. It isn’t to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains, which I want – I don’t rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me” (The Fellowship 85). Sam formally addresses Frodo here (in his typical fashion), and tells of an unseen need to keep going—Sam maintains a greatness of soul by coming to terms with his needs; he refuses to submit and return to the Shire after seeing the elves, and though not presently obvious, his calm but strong endurance of misfortune comes out later during his and Frodo’s perilous journey to Mordor. He satisfies all the aforesaid criteria while lacking any epic, privileged background. He has no expectations, making his actions even more heroic.

In Moria, the traditional hero, Aragorn, cries the name of his ancestor, “Elendil!” (The Fellowship 322), while the modern hero, Frodo, cries the name of his home, “The Shire!” (316). Their values differ here—Aragorn thinks of his expectations, thrust upon him by his epic background, and Frodo thinks of his home like any common reader would. A chink in this hypothesis, of the hobbits as modern heroes without any grandiose beginnings resides Frodo, Merry, and Pippin being upper class. Frodo came into wealth through his uncle, Bilbo, Merry is the Master of Buckland’s son (Foster 331), and Pippin is the “thirty-second Thain of the Shire (14-64) and a Counsellor of the North-kingdom (14-64)” (Foster 401). Their priviledged backgrounds, however, do not factor into how they see themselves, and they, unlike other members of the Company, do not introduce themselves as “Frodo son of Drogo” (The Fellowship 316). Still, Sam serves as the prime example of the modern literary hero. He is merely a gardener, but his loyalty and steadfastness endure to the end.

All the other members of the Company or Fellowship come from royal, celebrated, or privileged genealogical roots whereas the hobbits seem less concerned with the upper echelon, resembling the origins of modern day readers. For instance, Aragorn descends from Númenórean prince Isildur [and is his heir (The Fellowship 241)]; he remains the last Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North (Foster 122). He may have been introduced as a “grim” Ranger in a pub (The Fellowship 153), but his history distances him from readers—because of his background, heroic deeds expected of him, and even his elevated diction make him inaccessible. As a member of the Dúnedain, he “knew and spoke an Elvish tongue,” which he often infused into his speech (“Appendix F” 1102). The elves appear even more distant than Aragorn: they are wholly divine beings. Prince of the Woodland Realm (Foster 140) and sole elf of the Company, Legolas exclaims the English word “Alas! Alas!” at the Council of Elrond to announce his highly formal introduction (The Fellowship 248). Gimli, son of Glóin (Foster 208) has a similar introduction: an antiquated exchange of axioms with Elrond (The Fellowship 274) marks his first stretch of dialogue, removing him, establishing his diction as higher than the hobbits. The Common Speech, as adopted by hobbits, was used “freely and carelessly,” but “the more learned among them had still at their command a more formal language when occasion required” (“Appendix F” 1104). Indeed, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin shy away from such elevated diction (except when addressing Elves), contrary to epic convention, and their lexicons feature simpler terms and a heavy use of contractions (The Fellowship 48, 273, 276, 90) that parallel modern, colloquial English. They talk like Tolkien’s readers.

From these ideas, crafting a generalization like, “Most accessible, modern literary heroes have values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans,” demands accompanying and relevant premises to characterize it as a cogent argument. Consider the following premises: Hobbits are accessible to the reader; Hobbits are modern literary heroes; Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans. Rearranging these premises as the above essay does yield the cogent argumentative pattern as defined by Richard Feldman in Reason and Argument (86):

  1. x is an A. (Hobbits are accessible to the reader)
  2. x is a B. (Hobbits are modern literary heroes)
  3. Most ABs are Cs (Most accessible, modern literary heroes have  values, behavior, and speech pattern like humans)
  1. x is C. (Hobbits have values, behavior, and speech patterns like humans)

Some paragraphs adjust some wording to expound upon the premises and provide linguistic flourishes for aesthetics, but the generalization remains that hobbits are accessible, modern literary heroes (with passion, etc.) because they value, like and dislike “the same things,” eat and drink “the same things,” and speak the same way as readers (The Fellowship 2). The hobbits provide hope for the humble and self-conscious, illustrating that even the smallest individuals can perform truly epic feats in the face of peril.


Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College, 1999. Print.

Bragg, Melvyn, prod. “Heroism.” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, England, 6 May 2004. Radio. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004y282

Feldman, Richard. Reason and Argument. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999. Print.

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From the Hobbit to The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Print.

Garth, John. “John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, 1892-1973.” Handout. 11 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Sam Gamgee and Tolkien’s Batmen.” John Garth. Beverly Rogers, Carol C Harter Black Mountain Institute, UNLV, 13 Feb. 2014. Web. 26 July 2016. https://johngarth.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/sam-gamgee-and-tolkiens-batmen/

Garth, John. “World War I and Tolkien.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Garth, John. “World War I Writing and Disenchantment.” Handout. 15 July 2016.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix F.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston, NY: Mariner, 2012. 1101-112. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2002. 102-30. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Tolkien and Fairy-Story

Fascinated by the process of fact and legend interlacing to become mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien created “a mythology and a pseudohistory that had an interface with the actual history of England’; this interweaving of history, legend, and literature is how ‘the stories become mythology’” (Drout 241). Indeed, Tolkien’s legendarium with its complex pseudohistory seemingly began when “a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war” (“On Fairy-Stories” 135). Tolkien’s secondary world of Middle-earth features the past seamlessly interlacing with the present and vice versa, yielding a complex environment and setting. Threading in bits of fairy-story, then, seems fitting rather than extraneous; these bits offer, what Tolkien calls “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule” (“On Fairy-Stories” 138). History changes with time, being written by victors while being presented as factual, but fairy-stories possess a seemingly indefinite life span. Stories, fairy or otherwise, welcome alteration because no expectation of truthfulness governs them.

History brings validity, truth, and familiarity by presenting real world events to the reader as concrete guideposts through the fantastical or supernatural (in the strict denotational sense). Tolkien’s “historial,” will be defined as in a particular mode of writing that draws on historical data while maintaining literary undertones. A feeling of nostalgia or déjà vu pervades this mode, for rooting events in historical “fact” allows readers to easily enter into familiar, reality-based but fictitious realms like Edoras or Minas Tirith. Traveling into a secondary world largely composed of fairy elements (i.e. Lothlórien or Cirith Ungol) however requires a certain number of guideposts grounded in reality or distant memory history. Beowulf exemplifies the ideal balance, to Tolkien, between the two, providing a decent amount of concrete fact or historical layering before entering the world of Faërie.

Tolkien’s work on the epic poem, Beowulf, spanned several decades, from his days as a student to his teaching at Oxford. Possibly riffing off Tolkien’s first Middle-earth hero star-mariner, Eärendil, journalist Joan Acocella claims that Beowulf was “Tolkien’s lodestar,” and “everything he did led up to or away from it.” Moving from Beowulf to the Rohirrim, the Anglo-Saxon analogs in The Lord of the Rings presents little difficulty. Tolkien roots Rohirrim pseudohistory in the Anglo-Saxon heroic warrior ethos. King Théoden’s comitatus (bound by duty, love, and mead) meets in Meduseld which parallels King Hrothgar’s Heorot (The Two Towers 501). Tolkien speaks of Beowulf as he would like his readers to speak of The Lord of the Rings, and the poem would have been on his mind. He writes that the Beowulf poet “preserved” a “balance” between fairy overload and epic tone. Tolkien celebrates the idea of “lost-tales” with his translation of Beowulf and his reworked, abbreviated version of the same poem, Sellic Spell. Tolkien does what he thinks has occurred in mythology by providing the basal fairy-story or “lost tale” to accompany the epic (Garth, “An introduction to Beowulf” 6). A lack of raw, unadulterated history in Sellic Spell changes the seriousness of the text, rendering it a somewhat fanciful, hence his call for a balance between the “historial” and “fairy-story”:

“for Beowulf…The larger symbolism is near the surface but it does not break through, nor become allegory. Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North” (Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics” 114).

The last excerpted sentence aims to describe Beowulf, the epic hero, and yet it could also describe one of the major heroes of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn. Both Beowulf and Aragorn possess fairy-story elements. Beowulf can be construed into the honey eating, “uncouth fairy-tale champion,” Beewulf of Sellic Spell (Beowulf 205-207); Aragorn, as the mortal lover of Arwen, the Elven princess of Rivendell.

Aragorn teeters between the “historial” and “fairy” realms. As a man, he appears as an epic hero from the pages of history, but his specific characterization as a Númenórean makes him more fairy-story material (Foster 22). As such, he leads a liminal and heightened existence with a longer than “normal” lifespan. He also falls just below the Wood Elves in terms of classification and proximity to the Valar (Foster 514). Aragorn further connects to the elves because he loves and weds Arwen, a match analogous to the crucial story of Beren and Lúthien (“Appendix A” 1032-1038).

Elves occupy a curious position in the fairy-story aspect of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrote his epic as an outlet for his invented Elvish languages. Rather unlike the Beowulf poet, Tolkien began with a fairy-story rather than remnants of the past by writing The Silmarillion as the basis for his pseudohistory writ large. The idea of “lost tales,” lost fairy-stories being the foundation of history comes to fruition with this work. Tolkien saw the “inevitability” of including Men (i.e. Aragorn, Boromir, and Faramir) in his history, but he notes their periphery placement: Men entered the tale “not merely transfigured or partially represented as Elves, Dwarfs, Hobbits, etc. But they remain peripheral – late comers, and however growingly important, not principals” (Tolkien, “Letter 131” 147). Basing his own secondary world on fairy-story beings, however, provide “lost tales” by which the background history can be trusted and transmuted.

In The Lord of the Rings traditional fairy-story creatures like Elves coupled with aberrations like Tom Bombadil fascinates and guides readers into Tolkien’s secondary world. Readers engage in a suspension of belief with these characters because enough bedrock has been laid for them to feel safe to proceed on into the Faërie—Tolkien carefully builds a realistic foundation with The Silmarillion and other poems or tales to achieve this balance (“On Fairy-Stories” 132).

Tom Bombadil enters the narrative as eucatastrophe, saving the hobbits from the labyrinthine Old Forest and Old Man Willow (The Fellowship 117). He, with his enchanting singing and subjective characterization as “before the river and the trees,” really “before” the existence of anything natural in Middle-earth (The Fellowship 129), defies description. Despite his form as the ultimate Natural Man (an unfallen Adam), Bombadil belongs in a fairy-story, but readers, however begrudgingly, follow the Bombadil enigma into his house. They question his purpose in the narrative while falling under his spell, his “arresting strangeness” (Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” 139). Bombadil’s spell never ceases to captivate because Tolkien provides an epic analog (Väinämöinen from The Kalevala), and does not let him stray too far from reality. He interweaves Bombadil into Middle-earth pseudohistory, occasionally returning to his character (see The Fellowship 259). Tolkien presents Bombadil as true and relevant to the greater narrative which draws upon “the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, or imagined wonder” (“On Fairy-Stories” 116).

History and the associated culture of a given populace fuel the narratives of “lost tales.” Elapsed time transforms forgotten epic history into fictional narratives and fairy-stories, because these “historial legends” derive from “traditions about real men, real events, real policies, in actual geographical lands” (Tolkien, Beowulf 205). Poets take history and create art, and hybrid, fantasy epics (that take into account all the supernatural beliefs, values, and heroes of a culture) rank as the highest compliment to history. And, this retrieval of a story out of history itself is one of the many epic tropes (Garth, “Epic elements” 1). Dr. Karen Edwards of Exeter University, claims that epics “shatter the mold with every creation” in attempts to “capture the controlling force of culture,” if one exists (Bragg). Adding to Edward’s claim, classicist Oliver Taplin, states that epics share in a “family resemblance, as a collection of works, that break the mold in order to face the contemporary” (Bragg). The Lord of the Rings dismantles the supposed barrier between a fairy-story and a medieval chronicle by defying a single label. With all its intertextuality and pervading belief in itself as a work, Tolkien’s legendarium stands as the prime example of a secondary world filled with its own culture, fairy beliefs, and heroes.

‘Don’t the great tales never end?’ [said Sam]

‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ‘But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner’” (The Two Towers 697).

Works Cited

Acocella, Joan. “Slaying Monsters.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 26 May 2014. Web. 07 Aug. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/02/slaying-monsters

Bragg, Melvyn, prod. “The Epic.” In Our Time. BBC Radio 4. London, England, 6 Feb 2003. Radio. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00548t1

Foster, Robert. The Complete Guide to Middle-earth: From the Hobbit to The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 1979. Print.

Drout, Michael. “A Mythology for Anglo-Saxon England,” in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, edited by Jane Chance, 229-247. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Garth, John. “An introduction to Beowulf.” Handout. 9 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Epic elements.” Handout. 13 July 2016.

Garth, John. “Session 8: The Lord of the Rings Foreword to Chapter 2.” Handout. 20 July 2016.

Smol, Anna. “History, Anglo Saxon.” J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Ed. Michael D. C. Drout. New York: Routledge, 2007. 274-76. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Appendix A.” The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston, NY: Mariner, 2012. 1032-038. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Daniel Donoghue. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2002. 102-30. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “Letter 131 To Milton Waldman.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. 143-61. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. 109-61. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Mariner /Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.