The Pleasure of Discovery:
Medieval Literature in Adolescent Novels Set in the Middle Ages
Three recent novels illustrate several ways modern writers incorporate medieval material into fiction set in the Middle Ages. Although writers use earlier literature in many, many ways, here I'll discuss tales within tales in Frances Temple's The Ramsay Scallop (1994) and Elizabeth Alder's The King's Shadow (1994), and allusions to medieval works in Michael Cadnum's In a Dark Wood (1998). Some novelists retell medieval tales, as in Katherine Paterson's Parzival: The Quest of a Grail Knight (1998) and Rosemary Sutcliff's Beowulf novel, Dragon Slayer (1966). Others incorporate historical characters within novels, as Alder does in The King's Shadow, which features players from the drama of 1066--Harold of England and William of Normandy. My focus here, however, is the modern writer's use of the medieval writer's words.
The Tale Within a Tale
The authors of The Ramsay Scallop and The King's Shadow use the device of the tale within the tale, creating characters who hear or tell medieval stories and poems. Readers of both novels are introduced to less well-known medieval works like The Song of Roland. They also come across more familiar stories, like Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, as they might have been told in a medieval context--on a pilgrimage or in a lord's hall--not in a textbook smelling of the classroom. In both novels, The Song of Roland figures, and Beowulf and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are also included in The King's Shadow. In The Ramsay Scallop, Temple uses two of The Canterbury Tales. Despite their reliance on the same technique, Temple and Alder incorporate tales within their tales in different ways, to different effects.
The year is 1299, and Nora and Thomas have been sent by their village priest on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Spain. Along the way, they meet Etienne, a French student, who entertains a large group of pilgrims by telling the tale of Roland, Charlemagne, and the traitor, Ganelon. Etienne's story is a retelling of The Song of Roland, an 11th-century Old French epic about an historical episode in the life of Charlemagne. Of course, the historicity of the epic is a bit questionable: the hero must be presented as a hero, mustn't he?
Etienne's telling of the story, a summary of the epic, takes several pages, and other characters interrupt him to ask questions or make comments. The poem glorifies war, and author Frances Temple doesn't particularly like it. We can tell because both Nora and Etienne--of whom Temple is fond--dislike it. Nora says to Etienne, "You don't like this story, do you", and later, she falls asleep thinking: "What a chump Roland was. . . . Ganelon was a traitor, but it was he who wanted peace".
In the morning's discussion of the tale, two of the female pilgrims find fault with the idea of heroism presented in the story. Temple wants us to question our own perceptions about heroism--and who can be a hero. She has Nora say: "In stories the men are heroes because of what they do, but if the women are heroes at all, it is because of what they think, or because of what happens to them". This analysis by medieval people of an oft-told tale seems better suited to an audience of a later age. The only pilgrim who likes the story is a little boy, who wants to hear more about the fighting. Temple comes dangerously close to implying that the story--so popular in the Middle Ages--is childish, and therefore, so were those silly medieval people.
The appearance of Chaucer's tales, composed between 1360 and 1400, in The Ramsay Scallop, a novel set in 1299, is less problematic than it might seem. Few of his plots were original to Chaucer, and a major strand of Chaucer scholarship looks at sources and analogues for his tales. Travelers such as those in The Ramsay Scallop could easily have been familiar with these stories. Their reactions, however, would not be the same as ours, yet Temple treats Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, the story of Patient Griselda, the same way she treats The Song of Roland: her characters react with 20th-century sensibilities. A medieval audience might interpret the story by looking for allegorical readings (Walter as God; Griselda as the obedient Christian) or thinking of the tale as an exemplum of wifely obedience. Yet Temple's characters are filled with anger and disgust by the plot, the way modern students in a Chaucer class often are. The tale was popular in the Middle Ages, as its survival in so many manuscripts attests; versions of the story in English, French, Italian, and Latin survive. Chaucer's Clerk himself tells us that his source is Petrarch, and we know that Petrarch translated Boccaccio's version (in The Decameron) from Italian into Latin. As a folktale, other versions of the story existed long before Boccaccio wrote it down (Benson). Such popularity--with both scholarly and folk audiences--suggests that medieval people would not react with such unqualified disgust as Temple's characters display.
Temple's characters' reactions to The Wife of Bath's Tale are not so anachronistic, partly because the story fits much better with contemporary tastes. Temple gives both tales appropriate tellers: a student tells The Clerk's Tale, and an old woman narrates The Wife of Bath's Tale. The use of these two Canterbury Tales, both of which George Lyman Kittredge included in his "marriage group," or the set of tales within the Canterbury Tales that focus on marriage, is fitting in The Ramsay Scallop, since Nora's upcoming marriage to Thomas is a theme of the novel. Although Temple misrepresents medieval attitudes, she does a fine job of placing these tales and The Song of Roland within the context of a pilgrimage. This context allows characters to comment on them, and turn them into quick, lively, stories instead of dead ones relegated to a Required Reading list.
Temple simplifies stories, including only basic plot elements, so that they do not overwhelm her novel. Each tale provides implicit commentary on the novel's thematic elements, and Temple allows readers to discover these connections for themselves. She chooses stories that are easily summarized and she leaves in some parts that are not essential to the plot, but important for understanding the medieval mind. For example, she includes the discussion of gentilesse from The Wife of Bath's Tale, in which we learn that true gentleness (a word that to a medieval audience signifies high birth) comes from God, not from one's family tree.
Like Temple, Elizabeth Alder incorporates references to The Song of Roland and Beowulf into her novel, The King's Shadow. However, Alder's purpose in including medieval works differs from Temple's, particularly in the case of the Old French epic. Instead of using the plot of The Song of Roland to comment on morality or heroism, Alder celebrates the sound and emotion within the poem. Evyn, an 11th century Welsh boy who hopes to be a bard, or storiawr, sings the song:
High are the hills and dark the valleys, brown are the rocks and dread the defiles . . . When Roland sees the peers, and Oliver whom he so loved, lying dead, pity takes him and he begins to weep . . . So great is his grief he cannot stand.
In Evyn's view, "This was a story of courage and honor and death, worth telling well". Over and over, Evyn chants the beginning, "High are the hills and dark the valleys," lines that resonate throughout the novel, even after Evyn's tongue is cut out and his dream of being a storiawr vanishes. Later, when Evyn hears another bard singing about "The Battle of Brunanburh" (the poem is recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), his reaction is personal: he, who can never sing again, should have stood in this bard's place. The significance of the story itself, in which a warrior's "young son [is] mangled by wounds," and its relationship to Evyn's own situation, Alder leaves for the reader to discover. Similarly, when Evyn hears Beowulf for the first time, "he listened intently as the storyteller wove magic with words". The poetic passages comment directly on the events in the novel, but Alder again allows readers to make the connection themselves instead of having Evyn comment on them. She allows Evyn to be a boy of his time, the 11th century; not, like Temple's heroine, a 20th-century teenager transported into the Middle Ages.
Unlike Temple, Alder does not give the reader the entire plot of The Song of Roland or "The Battle of Brunanburh" or Beowulf. Instead, she presents snatches of poetry. In The King's Shadow, the effect poetry has on the listener is more important than what happens in the poem, although in both novels the poems comment in some way on the action of the novel. When a bard sings of Beowulf, he begins not with the beginning, but with the end: the old king's fatal fight with the dragon. A man sitting in King Harold's hall calls out, requesting this part of the story, and the bard sings it with the king's permission. We hear only eight lines of poetry, but in them, we know that Beowulf, now king of his people, will die--as surely as we know that King Harold, who sits listening to the epic, will soon meet his own death in battle.
Alder's use of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle shows another method of incorporating medieval literature into a modern novel. The plot of The King's Shadow owes much to the Chronicle: Alder bases the structure on events recorded therein, and she heads individual chapters with passages from the Chronicle--"Then Duke William sailed from Normandy with a great fleet," for example. In the last chapter of the novel, after the death of Harold, entries from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle become part of the text itself as Evyn--denied speech, but given tongue by means of pen and parchment--begins to record for posterity the events he witnessed. Evyn's writing in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recalls Juliana's helping to embroider the Bayeux Tapestry in Eloise McGraw's The Striped Ships. Both novels are set at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, and both characters record the history they witnessed first-hand. (For another recent novel based on events recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see Joan Elizabeth Goodman's The Winter Hare.)
Allusions to Medieval Works
Let us now shift our gaze from the end of Anglo-Saxon England to its aftermath: the legendary outlaws who people Michael Cadnum's In a Dark Wood (1998). The Robin Hood novel is becoming a genre in its own right: Teresa Tomlinson's The Forest Wife (1993), Monica Furlong's Robin's Country (1995), and The Outlaws of Sherwood (1988), by Robin McKinley are recent representatives that follow Geoffrey Trease's 1934 novel, Bows Against the Barons. But Cadnum provides a twist--both in his presentation of Robin Hood and in his use of medieval literature.
In a Dark Wood tells the story of Robin Hood from the unlikely perspective of Geoffrey, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cadnum cunningly borrows from medieval texts in a surprising way, using bits of well-known tales like puzzle pieces. After you see one allusion, you start looking for others, the way you look through the Sunday-morning cartoon that challenges kids to "find seven things that don't belong in this picture." Once you see the tennis shoe in the apple tree, you can't stop searching for all seven items. But Cadnum neither identifies his sources nor gives the answers upside down at the bottom of the page; he doesn't even include an author's note. And many of his allusions are so esoteric that only a medievalist would catch them.
Early in the novel, a character "used the London word for egg, ey, not the local [Northern] eyren". Teachers who have studied the history of the English language might recognize this incidental allusion to William Caxton's "Preface to the Aeneid" in which Caxton--living before the standardization of the English language--wonders which form of a word he should print: "Lo, what should a man in these days now write--eggs or eyren?" (Unfortunately, Cadnum makes a small mistake: the different forms of the word in Caxton are not ey and eyren, which are simply the singular and plural of the London dialectal form. The -en ending is the strong plural form: we still use it in children, oxen, and brethren.)Caxton's "Preface" is often anthologized in college textbooks such as The Oxford Anthology of English Literature, but high school readers are likely to have trouble locating it.
Perhaps this allusion was accidental. Perhaps not. Consider: a few pages later, Geoffrey speaks to an abbess, who "laughed through her nose, like a Frenchwoman". If the line makes you think of Chaucer's Prioress, you're right. Within the same page the abbess is described in a paragraph right out of The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:
Her gray habit was crisp and new, and a band of coral ran around her wrist. Every eleventh bead of her rosary was jade, and a golden brooch hung from the beads, engraved with the letter A. Round the peak of the A ran a crown, and in fine letters . . . were the words Amor Vincit Omnia. (30-31)
Here, the allusion is more straightforward and recognizable. If not before, many English teachers' noses would be aquiver at the familiar scent of the last phrase, Love Conquers All. Compare the relevant lines from Chaucer:
Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene, On which ther was first write a crowned A, And after Amor vincit omnia. (GP lines 158-162)
The doctor, too, is modeled on Chaucer's Doctour of Phisik, and wears "blood-red, slashed with blue, and the lining was shiny taffeta" (51). The description comes again from the General Prologue, but it is hardly a Chaucerian passage that comes tripping off every English teacher's tongue: "In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al, / Lyned with taffata and with sendal" (GP lines 439-40). Sangwyn means red, pers means blue, and that's what the doctor of Nottingham wears. Like Chaucer's physician, Cadnum's doctor is a man of measure who well knows the four humors and the relationship between astrological events and illness, but unlike Chaucer's character, this doctor does not collude with apothecaries, setting the prices of medicines, nor does he profit from the plague.
Later, we meet a miller with wide black nostrils who carries a stave and plays the bagpipe, more allusions to the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales , thus tempting the reader to see Chaucer everywhere--The Friar's Tale, for example, in the sentence: "A wagon was sunk into mud, and a peasant pushed from behind to help the ox". In The Friar's Tale, two men, one dressed in green and carrying bow and arrows, come across a carter whose cart is stuck in mud; in the novel, two men, one dressed in green and carrying bow and arrows, see a peasant whose wagon is stuck in mud. In Chaucer, the man in green is really the devil (and I must say, a rather likeable devil), and the other is a summoner who will shortly be taken to hell. In Cadnum's novel, the two men are Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Whether or not the allusion was intended, paired with the other Chaucerian references, it enriches Cadnum's text. It allows us to look for similarities amongst the characters of the summoner and the sheriff, and the devil (who, in Chaucer, dresses as a woodsman and who comes from the North) and Robin Hood, who has told the sheriff that he has journeyed "from north of here". Is Robin Hood like the devil in Chaucer's tale, who sports with the summoner? Other allusions enrich the text in a similar way: if the sheriff is having an affair with a woman like the Prioress, what does that reveal about his character?
Cadnum's touch is light; readers who see the allusions will be pleased, while those who don't will still enjoy the story. And Cadnum doesn't overdo it: the novel's franklin is just a franklin, not "Epicurus owene son" (GP line 336), nor does Sir Roger, the old Crusader knight, seem to be modeled on Chaucer's Knight. Cadnum seems to be having fun and inviting his readers to do the same; games and gaming are an important part of the story, so why not make them a part of the texture of the tale?
The novel's texture is further enhanced by possible allusions to a visual source, the Luttrell Psalter, a 14th century illuminated manuscript that contains scenes of rural English life so accurate that they have been used as the basis of an open-air museum in England. In Cadnum's novel, we read, "A horse dragged a wooden frame weighted with a stone, the comblike teeth of the frame breaking the earth into perfect lines" . For an illustration of this scene, see folio 171 recto of the Luttrell Psalter, where, in the bottom margin, two peasants are harrowing (Backhouse). It's one of the most famous illustrations in the Psalter, and whether or not Cadnum was consciously referring to it, the description is apt, particularly when the following sentence uses the word "border," making me think of the manuscript's decorated margin. Likewise, within the same paragraph, Cadnum describes a scarecrow as being "like half a man miraculously endowed with the power to fight or at least kill magpies". A reader already alerted to the Luttrell Psalter scene might be reminded of the fabulous creatures who inhabit the manuscript's borders, such as the half-man, half-bird on the top right of folio 208 recto (Backhouse). Later in the novel, Cadnum writes: "A peasant in a black cap the shape of his skull struck a tree with a stick, and acorns fell to the ground. Pigs ate them . . ." -the scene is on folio 59 verso of the Psalter, in the upper left-hand margin, and the man's cap is indeed black and skull-shaped (Backhouse). There are certain to be other allusions to the Psalter and other works have I missed. (Readers who can't find Backhouse's book on the Luttrell Psalter might look at Sheila Sancha's The Luttrell Village: Country Life in the Middle Ages; the illustrations were inspired by those in the Psalter.)
Cadnum's sly references to medieval works bring pleasure to readers who recognize them, and heighten the audience's awareness of the dual texts, but play no vital role in the novel's plot. In this way, his technique is reminiscent of Elizabeth Janet Gray's in her 1942 novel for younger readers, Adam of the Road. Gray, too, alludes to The Canterbury Tales and, as Miriam Youngerman Miller has shown, a variety of other, less well-known medieval texts including The Proverbs of Alfred, Havelock the Dane, King Horn, and The Second Shepherd's Play. References such as these will only be recognized by those who have studied the literature of the Middle Ages; for Miller, they "provide authenticity to [Gray's] story". And they provide the reader with the pleasure of unexpected discovery. The young reader who has encountered The Song of Roland in The Ramsay Scallop or The King's Shadow has a context within which to place it when she is assigned it in French class.
Into the Classroom
By pairing canonical texts such as Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales with contemporary novels such as the three discussed here, teachers can provide students with a gateway into the Middle Ages. The discrepancies in Temple's presentation of medieval life can be a jumping-off point for discussions of attitudes towards gender and class in the Middle Ages. Examining one of The Canterbury Tales as it is presented in Chaucer and in Temple's retelling allows students to engage in close textual reading as well as in comparison. Further comparison between the reactions Temple's characters have to the story, the students' own reactions, and the ways Chaucer's pilgrims respond can lead to a clearer understanding of some of the differences in attitudes that characterize modern and medieval society. Accessible reference works like Daily Life in Chaucer's England can add depth to students' understanding of medieval culture.
In addition, pairings of novels and medieval texts afford plenty of opportunities to explore traditional literary topics such as characterization and point of view, as well as writing strategies like comparison and dialogue. Here are some suggestions for classroom activities and discussion.
--Compare Temple's characters' reactions to The Clerk's Tale with the reaction Chaucer's pilgrims have. In The Canterbury Tales, we hear the remarks of the Host and the Merchant. At the very end of the tale, the Host says he wishes his own wife could hear this story so that she would be more like Griselda. And at the beginning of his prologue, the Merchant compares his own wife's behavior- unfavorably- with Griselda's. How might Chaucer's Prioress and Wife of Bath have reacted? How would these reactions differ from those of Nora or Marthe in The Ramsay Scallop? (Try this same exercise with the Wife of Bath's Tale.) --Look back at the story of Roland and the ensuing discussion of heroism in The Ramsay Scallop (169-175). How do you define the word hero? What qualities do your heroes possess? In your opinion, is Roland a hero? Keeping in mind that he is the hero of The Song of Roland, compare modern and medieval ideas of heroism. --Choose a familiar story to retell (like Cinderella or Snow White). Use Cadnum's technique of employing or alluding to characters from The Canterbury Tales in your retelling. Explain why you would use a particular character of Chaucer's in each instance: for example, what details from Chaucer would help to characterize Cinderella's wicked stepmother? --Write a short proposal for a novel, contemporary or historical, in which you will incorporate characters, plot elements, or events from a medieval text in the way Cadnum, Alder, or Temple do. You might base your entire novel on a medieval tale or event, or you might employ only snippets of information culled from your knowledge of the Middle Ages. Explain your rationale: how will your inclusion of these details enrich the text? --Turn the tables and have the medieval characters from The Ramsay Scallop tell a thoroughly modern story, such as the life and success of Bill Gates. How would Nora and Thomas react to such a tale? How would their reactions differ from your own? Why? --In The King's Shadow, Evyn reveres The Song of Roland and Beowulf because he wants to be a bard, or singer. He memorizes traditional, formulaic verses. If this story were updated to the 20th century, what would Evyn want to be- a rock and roll star? A poet? What songs or poems would be appropriate for the 20th century Evyn to memorize? Why? --Choose any of the novels and rewrite a short scene from the point of view of a different character in the same book. Consider the age, religion, gender, nationality, and social class of each character as you decide which details will be important. You may need to invent details that the first teller did not include. For example, if Nora, not Etienne, told the story of Patient Griselda in The Ramsay Scallop, how might it differ? Think about how a real girl of Nora's time period would tell the story as opposed to how Nora tells the story. --Find a copy of the Luttrell Psalter. Compare the visual impression of one of the pictures with the descriptions in Cadnum's novel. Which do you believe gives a more accurate vision of rural life in the late Middle Ages? Why? --Write your own description of medieval agricultural activities, using a picture from The Luttrell Psalter as a guide.
Rebecca Barnhouse is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio, where she teaches medieval literature. Her book, The Moral Retelling of the Middle Ages in Young Adult Literature, is scheduled for release by Boynton/Cook in the spring, 2000.
Reference Citation: Barnhouse, Rebecca. (1999). "The Pleasure of Discovery: Medieval Literature in Adolescent Novels Set in the Middle Ages." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.