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Jousting for Identity: Tournaments in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal James Weldon Criticism has not been kind to T h o m a s Chestre. Spirited defences of the literary merits of Sir Launfal have been unconvincing overall, and Mills' opinion that the author of Sir Launfal displays a 'consistently low standard of achievement' voices a critical consensus about author and romance 2 that has met with little resistance. The tournament episodes in particular 1 M. Mills, 'The Composition and Style of the "Southern" Octavian, Sir Laun and Libeaus Desconus', Medium Aevum, 31 (1962), 109. 2 The following is not an exhaustive list and functions only to outline the most common arguments. Earl. R. Anderson, 'The Structure of Sir Launfal', Papers on Language and Literature, 13 (1977), 124, for example, praises Chestre's 'congruence of structure and theme' as 'a credible claim to significant artistry' in Sir Launfal; Michael J.Wright, 'The Tournament Episodes in Sir Launfal: A Suggestion', Parergon, 8 (1974), 37-38; Shearle Furnish, 'Civilization and Savagery in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal', Medieval Perspectives, 3.1 (1988), 13 49; and E.M. Bradstock, '"Honoure" in Sir Launfal', Parergon, 24 (1979), 9-17. Bradstock observes competent handling of theme and episode, whereas Timothy D. O'Brien, 'The "Readerly" Sir Launfal', Parergon, 8.1 (1990), 33-45, demonstrates Sir Launfal's narrative complexity (p. 45). Those on the negative side are far more numerous. See Mills (above); S.T. Knight, 'The Oral Transmission of Sir Launfal', Medium Aevum, 38.2 (1969), 164-70; W.R.J. Barron, English Medieval Romance, Longman Literature in English Series (London and 108 James Weldon exemplify for m a n y the weaknesses and contradictions which saturate the poem. Considered hackneyed in style, they subvert the conventional function of tournament episodes in romances; rather than offer persuasive demonstration of the hero's prowess in arms, they undermine his character for modern readers. LaunfaTs wholesale slaughter of his enemies in the tournament scenes is excessive, and his total reliance upon his magical servant Gylfre for these victories offers feeble, if not deconstructive, evidence for his prowess. So ineffective are Chestre's tournaments, that m a n y critics mention them only briefly, or, more frequently, ignore them. The fact that they seem to represent Chestre's original additions to the Lanval story only confirms for m a n y Mills' estimation. S o m e recent criticism encourages a more open perspective to Chestre's work and allows us to rethink the function of tournaments in Sir Launfal. Barthes' exploration of 'readerly' and 'writerly' texts, for example, allows O'Brien to position Sir Launfal as a writerly work, one that engages the reader in the production or interpretation of the text, as opposed to a readerly text with fixed meanings. If the tournaments can New York: Longman, 1987); and A.C. Spearing, 'The Lanval Story', in The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge and N e w York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 97-119, who labels Sir Launfal 'a fascinating disaster' (p. 106). Daryl Lane, 'Conflict in Sir Launfal', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen,74 (1973), 283-87, sums up the critic balance sheet with his view that whatever the merits of Sir Launfal, i t is undercut by crudities and inconsistencies which no amount of explanation can (or should) cover up or smooth over (p. 283). 3 I use the word 'romance' and 'romances' throughout this essay rather than the more specific term 'lay'. I accept, however, John Finlayson's definition of the principal kind of lay as 'essentially a short romance which usually involves some supernatural element', 'The Form of the Middle English Lay', Chaucer Review, 19.4 (1985), 367. 4 See O'Brien, 'The "Readerly" Sir Launfal". The terms 'readerly' and 'writerly' are, of course, those of Roland Barthes. See his S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (1970; rpt N e w York: Hill and Wang, 1974), especially pp. 3-4, where a readerly text is what can be read, but not written, whereas the writerly text engages the reader as active producer or interpreter. Writing, observes Jonathan Culler, Barthes, Fontana Modern Authors (Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks, 1983), 'explores...


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