Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Response to "From Devil to Saint: Transformations in Sir Gowther"

This article, and the text, Sir Gowther, is close to my research interests, so I was looking forward to Charbonneau's analysis. But after reading it, I think she completely misses the point, and I think her misreading has to do with how she tries to classify Sir Gowther. By trying to fit it into definitions of romance, or hagiography, she completely misses the markers of folklore that are at the heart of Sir Gowther, and therefore misinterprets the entire text.

As the preface in the TEAMS text states, Sir Gowther has all the markings of folklore: the Wish Child motif, where a woman makes a wish for a child and ends up with something different than she wanted; the wild behavior of Gowther which can be tied to changeling children stories, and the association with the woods. Gowther displays all the marks of a folkloric changeling child/incubus' child. Yet Charbonneau states that "allusions to Merlin, similarities to Robert the Devil stories, and evocations of incubus lore seem pointless if the reason for the references is not sharply and immediately understood by an audience" (22). I believe this misreading stems from her looking at the text as literature, and not the folkloric nature of the text. Given the folklore motifs in the text, I believe that Charbonneau's assumption that the references would not be understood by the audience is a wrong one. I believe that these elements would have been easily recognizable to the audience of the time, and that the problems Charbonneau has with reading the text has to do with misidentifying a modern audience's issues with the text with that of the original audience.

Because Charbonneau identifies, but then dismisses the folkloric elements, she misreads the text. Gowther is the product of the wish child motif- his mother wishes for a child, and gets one, with a twist- he is the product of a demon, and therefore a changeling. She quotes Bradstock, stating that Gowther is a "contemplation of the nature of original sin" (25), trying to fit the folkloric elements of the story into a religious tale, and later wondering if the author "intended his work as a religious story, a semi-religious story or a hagiographic piece" (26). I believe this misreads the text by not considering that the tale of Sir Gowther has folkloric roots, and (re)tells an earlier, oral tale, and that the religious images, and ending plot, is evidence of this revision/re-imaging.

Charbonneau says that "Sir Gowther is provocative, but not profound; it raises questions, but gives no consistent or satisfying answers" (27). If you read Sir Gowther as folklore, then it is easy to see that the mismatches in genre and plot that occur represent anxieties and tensions about a more primitive, oral culture, and the written authoritative texts as represented by the Church. The people that folklore represents (or how the Church would have the people represented), have to believe that the Church can triumph over the customs, and beliefs of the people. Therefore, the changeling child, born of a demon, has to be able to find salvation. However, the artificial means through which this is achieved point to the fact that there is an underlying tension in this belief.


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