Approached as a summa of Alan J. Fletcher’s distinguished career to this point, The Presence of Medieval English Literature: Studies at the Interface of History, Author, and Text in a Selection of Middle English Literary Landmarks repays attentive reading for its insightful treatment of a wide range of canonical Middle English texts. The book is really a loosely juxtaposed collection of essays, however, for its organizing logic amounts to little more than ‘travels through the medieval English literary canon’ (51) from a broadly historicizing perspective. Apprehended as a putatively unified whole, therefore, The Presence of Medieval English Literature adds up to rather less than the sum of its parts.
This is unfortunate, since those constituent parts—chapter-length essays on The Owl and the Nightingale, Sir Orfeo, Pearl, Piers Plowman, works of Chaucer (chiefly The Canterbury Tales), and Malory’s Morte Darthur—are often valuable on their own, individual merits. Chapters on Sir Orfeo and Pearl are especially impressive, and I will treat them in more detail below. As I suggested above, however, the unifying logic by which the six core chapters have been stitched together is overly broad. Specifically, Fletcher’s titular phrase, ‘the presence of medieval English literature,’ refers first to [End Page 114] his selected texts’ ‘presence’ today in the literary canon; his goal is to make these ‘canonically privileged texts appear richer and stranger than they may hitherto have done…by restoring them to their [historical] moment in ways that allow aspects of their former presence to live again’ (3). In practice, what this goal amounts to is historicist contextualization, typically the identification of an explanatory cultural lens for some element(s) of a given text (thus heresy for Chaucer’s works, for example).
Fletcher is at his most interesting when he bumps up against the limitations of this interpretive mode, as he does in the chapters on Pearl and Sir Orfeo; indeed, his chapter on Pearl is called, simply and powerfully, ‘Pearl: The Limits of History.’ There, even as he identifies a new explanatory context for elements of the poem (preaching texts on the Feast of the Holy Innocents), he persuasively urges readers to ‘guard against reading his [the Pearl-poet’s] text deterministically as if it were a thing available to be flattened into identity with matters that may have impinged upon it’ (91). His chapter on Sir Orfeo, meanwhile, asks what explanatory contexts would have been available to medieval readers for the ‘extraordinary chamber of horrors’ (52) of folk taken to fairyland and then displayed there in various states of distress, death, or dismemberment. After considering three such explanatory contexts—aspects of Christianity, astrology, and fairy lore—that ultimately prove ‘incapable of satisfactorily containing chaos in one totalizing explanation’ (74), he concludes that ‘the harper, and through him the consolidating power of performative culture that his harping represents, is allowed to become stability’s champion’ (79). These essays represent Fletcher at his best: widely read, intellectually curious, and interpretively nimble.
The chapter on Malory will especially interest readers of Arthuriana, so I will summarize it at some length here. In ‘Morte Darthur: the Endgame of Authority,’ Fletcher argues that Malory’s text is a meta-quest for stable sources of authority and meaning, and that although ‘authority’s traditional bedrocks may sometimes afford no absolutely secure foothold…Malory’s sustained commitment to his authority-quest suggests his equally persevering belief, in principle, in authority’s achievability’ (217). Most of the chapter is spent identifying ‘tropes of authority’ and ‘formulas of authority’ (I never fully understood the difference between these formulations, if any) that Malory evokes across his massive work. Fletcher’s exploration of writing, as one such trope of authority, is the most substantial of these case studies, and it analyzes tomb-inscriptions (including Arthur’s famous epitaph) and letters in order to argue that ‘[w]ritten signs…are usually left untainted and unproblematic,’ and that...