Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Conception of Arthur. Sex Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon part two

See Previous post.

Part two:


I also assume that human history is a record of brutality interrupted by occasional attempts at idealism. And despite the common orthodoxy, this doesn’t just apply to white male patriarchal societies…fear, greed and stupidity seem to characterise all societies at all times. So the past is always going to be dangerous territory. 


The danger of dealing with past texts is succinctly expressed by Corinne Saunders in ‘Rape and ravishment in the literature of medieval England’:


'[…] by contrasting past and present, and assessing the past according to contemporary ideologies, we validate our own political assumptions. The temptation is to assume the transhistoric nature of contemporary premises and therefore to fit the evidently ‘misogynistic’ structures of the middle ages into a pattern to be censured and exposed…’


Such an approach, eager to find fault, inevitably misses the often complex nature of medieval narrative. Combine that with the typically ignorant assumption that medieval story tellers are inferior to modern ones and you get the classic rewrite of ‘Beowulf ‘or ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’ to ‘problematicise the heroic ideology of the poem’ which misses the fact that the poems already do that. 


But to return to Uther and the story of the conception of King Arthur. 


Laȝamon's version is not straightforward: the birth of the Great Hero is A GOOD THING, but His conception is an act of treachery, a sin, and a failure of a King who should have put duty before desire. 


At the core of this complex layering is our recognition that the story of Arthur’s conception is shaped by the Gospel narratives of the Nativity, which in turn echo Greek hero stories. There have also been attempts to reconstruct ‘Celtic’ stories in which a divine character pretends to be a woman’s husband so that a hero can be conceived.  More of this later. This understanding pulls the reader’s response in one direction: Whatever the morality of the act, the consequence is good.


But  Laȝamon’s version presents Arthur's conception as a troubling and problematic act. 


In Malory, Uther and Gorlois have been at war. The underlying tensions of the feast don’t require too much to set both men at each other’s throats. 


Laȝamon emphasises a double betrayal. Gorlois has previously saved Uther from a military disaster. His piety and loyalty have been emphasised. The feast at which Uther meets Ygraene is to celebrate that victory. Uther repays his debts by going to war with Gorlois and disguising himself as her husband so he can f#ck Ygaerne. 


It’s that brutal. It is not a love story. 


So morally and legally this is wrong. 


In Malory, Lancelot is morally and legally wrong but it’s difficult not to admire him. 


However, the assumptions that love is good, that there’s something heroic about someone who thinks ‘the world well lost for love’, even that romance should be a part of life, are not ‘transhistorical’ but the result of a cultural progression that shapes modern readers’ expectations. Laȝamon is writing before that expectation takes hold.


For Laȝamon ‘love’ is not ‘admirable’; it’s a diseased state in which people, notably kings, fail to fulfil the demands of their role. Locrin’s infatuation with Aestrild, and Vortigern’s with Rowena, bring disaster to themselves and their kingdom. The accumulation of previous stories critique Uther’s actions even if no character does. 


Throughout the Brut a social role, whether King, King’s Daughter, Queen or Knight, is almost a verb. In the Brut you do kinging. What defines a King as good or bad is established by all the examples of all the previous kings, and the reiterated lesson is that one who puts his own desire before his duty is a BAD KING. His actions will have disastrous consequences for himself and/or his country. 


Uther is therefore not only morally wrong: the church would condemn him as an adulterer, but the text in no way asks us to sympathise or condone his actions. Being overwhelmed by desire is not heroic; it’s wrong. 


Despite the assumption that a medieval priest would be stained with clerical misogyny, in this case, the woman is explicitly exonerated: not only does she not know it’s Uther, but there is some complicated manoeuvring so that Gorlois is dead before Arthur is conceived . Her innocence is emphasised. 


And then, to complicate matters further, at the centre of this tangle of contradictions, Laȝamon manages what is probably the quietest moment in the whole of the Brut. 


The story presents Arthur’s conception as anything other than straightforward for the reader.  Perhaps medieval story tellers were willing to give their readers freedom to come to their own conclusions. They were writing for adults. To read it simply as ‘a rape story’, to assume a medieval writer would have little sympathy for a female victim and would condone an act of male aggression, wilfully misses its complex presentation.  


In the next post, rewriting the past as a form of lying. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sex, Gilgamesh and Uther Pendragon. Jenny Lewis' 'Gilgamesh Retold'.


I assumed that anyone reading, writing or translating texts from the distant past is probably?Inevitably? going to encounter incidents, speeches, attitudes, actions, the list is long, that they would think are unacceptable as the thoughts, actions, behaviours etc. etc. of modern people.


The question then is, what to do with those incidents. 


Looming on the horizon for me is the story of Uther and the conception of Arthur. It’s the third and final story in the sequence I started with A Presentment of Englishry. But the closer I get to finishing the second story, the story of Vortigern, the less I know if I should do the third, or if I do it, how I should approach it. 


While thinking about this, I’ve been reading ‘Gilgamesh Retold’ by Jenny Lewis. It’s an impressive performance. 


I don’t want to detract from Lewis’s ‘Gilgamesh’, her scholarship or her poetry but there’s an Afterword where Lewis discusses the text and her translation and it is a succinct example of my problem.


In the Afterword she describes her discomfort with the incident between Shamhat and Enkidu. To domesticate Enkidu the wild man, Shamhat the temple prostitute is sent into the wilderness to introduce him to sexual intercourse and thus humanise him. 


Lewis describes the incident as fraught with ‘cultural anachronisms’. 

For a start the idea of a holy or sacred prostitute would seem to be a contradiction in terms to a twenty-first century reader but in ancient Sumer there doesn’t seem to have been any stigma attached to sex and certainly not to temple prostitutes in service to Inanna.[…] Even so, being told to trek three days into the wilderness and lie naked as lure for a gigantic hairy wild man (probably with bad personal hygiene) seems monstrously abusive and pornographic in any century. My way of dealing with this was to interpret it as a ritual, similar to the annual symbolic couplings between Inanna’s High Priestess and the king to ensure abundance in the land […] In my version Enkidu approaches Shambat gently and sings to her to reassure her; Inanna looks down on the couple , turning their lovemaking into something holy or supernatural (rather than bestial).


We should acknowledge the possible pun in ‘pornographic’ given the word’s etymology. But it seems to me that this doesn’t solve the problem. Whether Enkidu approaches her singing or snuffling doesn’t change the fact she’s been told to go teach him about sex. 


So a response in two parts. 


What isn’t ‘culturally anachronistic’ in Gilgamesh? He fights gods, kills the bull of heaven,  defeats a monster to steal his trees and travels to encounter the immortal survivors of the great flood.  


What wasn’t ‘monstrously abusive’ in Sumerian society by modern standards. The builders of Uruk’s walls weren’t working for the fun of it. They had no more control over their bodies than the temple prostitutes.  


Why have ideologies of sex and gender become such a focal point in the world of poetry and academia? The walls of Uruk are Gilgamesh’s glory, but he didn’t build them himself. Forget the poor who were conscripted to build them, but worry about the temple prostitute told to have sex with a man ‘with bad personal hygiene’? 


If we were to baulk at the incident in the name of ‘twenty first century readers’ doesn’t it also require us to assume that all ‘twenty-first century readers’ share the same values?


‘Twenty first century readers’ made Fifty Shades of Grey an international best seller. Recently I’ve been looking at generic fiction, both on screen and in print. There’s violence, sadism and sex, sometimes all three at the same time in the guise of entertainment. I’m not sure why, but you can, if you want to, watch people being tortured on your screen in the comfort of your own home. Your average ‘made for’ streaming service series has regular explicit sex which adds nothing to the narrative and goes on long enough to blur the distinction with pornography. Where I live the licenced brothels advertise themselves in the classified section of the local paper. Presumably the people who run them and use them, and that includes the paper who takes their advertising money and the government who taxes their profits, don’t find them ‘unacceptable’. 


The idea that ‘we all’ find x y z unacceptable is obviously untenable. If I were writing Uther’s story for HBO would anyone blink?


But since I do not want to contribute to the pervasive sludge, the observation doesn’t solve my Uther problem. 

In part two, he considers the idea of rewriting the text to make it acceptable for ‘modern readers’.


As of now I have no answer to any of this.


Except to say how much I admire Jenny Lewis’ ‘Gilgamesh Retold’. 

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Buchedd Beuno: The Life of Saint Beuno.

 Buchedd Beuno: The Life of Saint Beuno. Edited by Patrick Sims-Williams for the Dublin institute of Advanced studies. 


This was in the box of DIAS Medieval Welsh Texts I bought. I knew nothing about Beuno or his life, but it offered a break from working through stories from The Mabinogion.


I knew from reading Gerald of Wales that early Medieval Welsh saints are not to be trifled with. Beuno curses people who offend him or act badly, sometime bringing about their deaths, other times family misfortune. He also has the ability to stick severed heads back on decapitated corpses. 

It’s been a very enjoyable few weeks in his company.


What I admire most about the life is the absolute minimalism of the story telling. 

Here’s one episode; paraphrased, though my paraphrase is not much shorter than the text itself.


A young man, a workman, visits the court at of Ynyr of Gwent. He’s so good looking and well-mannered that everyone assumes he’s a noble. The King’s daughter falls for him so badly that she doesn’t want to live without him. The King, noticing this, decides the best course of action is to marry them before anything else can happen. So they are married.


Instead of living happily ever after, the happy couple set off for the young man’s home, with gold and silver and fine horses. But the young man has no home. When they stop to rest, the exhausted princess falls asleep. He is overcome with shame at the thought of his ‘homecoming’. His solution is to kill the princess while she sleeps and take off to the another royal court, where he uses the gold and silver to buy the office of steward.


Shepherds find the girl’s body and tell the Saint. He immediately goes with them, and reunites head and body. The princess is offered a choice: go home or stay here and serve God. She chooses the latter. Her brother turns up, and when she refuses to go home with him, he asks the saint to accompany him to the royal court to retrieve the gold and silver and horses. But when he arrives and sees his sister’s killer, he rushes at him and cuts his head off.


The king is outraged, and tells the saint that either he restore the dead man to life, or the brother dies. The saint does this. (This is the third time he’s done this in the story, but the first time when it’s not righting an obvious injustice.) The king apologises. The brother and sister and ex-husband disappear from the Saint’s story.


So much is left unsaid in the narrative especially at the beginning. Was the young man on the make? Does he pretend to be someone he isn’t or does he find it impossible to correct everyone’s mistake? When his new wife asks him, where do you come from, who are your family…how did he reply? Where did she think they were heading to when he ‘took her home’? How did she feel when she realised her head and been removed and then replaced? 


By leaving it unsaid: it’s all there? Reading the story, there's a compelling invitation to speculate. But while it would be tempting to rewrite the story and fill it out, that would destroy the effect.