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  • Reading Jaufré:Comedy and Interpretation in a Medieval Cliff-Hanger
  • Caroline D. Eckhardt

Long before Don Quixote tilted at his misinterpreted windmill, King Arthur also had a misadventure at a mill, though of a different sort.1 In one of the lesser-known texts of medieval courtly literature, the anonymous twelfth- or thirteenth-century Occitan romance called Jaufré,2 the opening episode presents a bizarre confrontation between Arthur and an animal resembling a strange, shaggy, and oversized bull. This bestia [beast], which the king encounters at a mill in the forest of Broceliande near his palace, does not conduct itself like a respectable monster, for despite its enlarged size and disturbing appearance, it behaves like a placid bovine, intent only on munching grain. However, when the baffled Arthur grabs its horns to push it away, he finds that it is apparently equipped with the medieval equivalent of superglue, for the king’s hands stick fast. The beast then carries the captured king, suspended from its horns, out of the mill and away to the edge of a precipice, where it dangles him over the void.

Let us leave him there for a moment to pose a question: why is such a peculiar and disruptively funny scene placed at the beginning of Jaufré? I will argue that the conduct of this initiatory adventure, which takes place before the titular hero Jaufré enters the tale, asserts the necessity of interpretation: one of the crucial tasks of individual agency is to correctly read circumstances in order to make situationally appropriate choices. The failure to properly interpret signs and events can be comic, as in this first episode, or can have painful consequences, as occurs later in the romance. Further, drawing upon concepts of poetics as theorized by medieval Occitan writers, I will argue that in between the stylistic domains that are analogous to the trobar leu [“light” poetry, easy of access] and the trobar clus [“closed” poetry, difficult of access], there lies a narrative space in which comedy such as that deployed in Jaufré operates and generates its distinctive type of reading pleasure.

I do not propose a simple application of the ideas of trobar leu and trobar clus to reading Jaufré. The Occitan self-referential poetic system, within which leu, clus, and other stylistic designations arose, is primarily that of lyric, not narrative. Further, those designations are themselves not fully transparent. The origins of the word trobar [to compose poetry] and its subsequent development have been much debated (Menocal) and the stylistic options that were identified by the major Occitan [End Page 40] poets included not only the oppositional terms trobar leu and trobar clus, but also other practices, such as trobar naturau [“natural” poetry], trobar plan [“smooth” poetry], trobar braus [“rough” poetry], trobar prim [“delicate” poetry], and trobar ric [“rich” poetry] (Köhler, Mölk, Paterson). In addition, though the trobar leu is not built upon textural devices such as wordplay, punning, “difficult verbal forms,” “‘deforming’ metrical patterns,” and “‘concentrated’ syntax,” which constitute “the basic ingredients of the explicitly difficult trobar clus” (Dembowski 766), nevertheless in its own way the trobar leu too can be hard to grasp. Its crucial tropes and themes, such as those of springtime and renewal and joy, are often deeply evocative and complicated, so that they “mean more than the casual, uninitiated reader realizes . . . the real difficulty resides in meaning” (Dembowski 768). Thus a rigid dichotomy between leu and clus would be misleading, although those terms can usefully mark the different ends of a spectrum of legibility.

Given these limitations or asymmetries, I will appropriate this poetic system for Jaufré only partially, by transference of its preoccupation with the question of common legibility, or the extent of accessibility that the verbal construct of the text is designed to invite. The poet Giraut de Bornelh (fl. ca. 1165–99), who theorized and practiced both the trobar leu and the trobar clus, defends his praxis of the trobar leu by saying that he writes “Que l’entenda tota gens” (qtd. in Paterson 91) [for everyone to understand]. He could certainly write in a more hermetic style, he explains, but a poem gains value when everyone understands it:



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