- Language and Imagination in the Gawain-Poems
This first volume of the new series, Manchester Medieval Literature, sets out to present 'a more or less open-ended critical account of the Gawain-poems' (vii), within the series' agenda of presenting up-to-date critical discussions in a 'jargon-free' form, accessible to a wide readership. J. J. Anderson, a distinguished editor of the Gawain-poems, is an ideal choice of author for such a study. His lucid and engaging book achieves both of the series' aims, and will be most useful to undergraduate students seeking an introduction to these key Middle English texts.
Language and Imagination includes four main chapters – one on each of the anonymous fourteenth-century alliterative poems in MS Cotton Nero A.x, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – as well as an introduction and an afterword. In his introduction and throughout the book, Anderson works from three main premises: a) one individual wrote all four poems (a widely but not universally accepted view); b) the poems are, therefore, interrelated thematically (the consensus opinion); and c) a useful way of developing an understanding of and appreciation for these texts is via close attention to their formal, literary, even archaic language (still a dominant mode of reading medieval texts). Now, (a) and (b) hardly need argument, and Anderson does not offer any. Item (c), however, does attract a reasonable amount of discussion, both in the introduction and throughout this study.
Close reading is experiencing a bit of a comeback after some attempts to marginalise this outmoded (to some) form of literary criticism. Anderson embraces the new respectability of this critical approach, to fair advantage. He lays his cards on the table at the outset: 'I see meaning as primarily constructed by patterns of words rather than by ideas and scripts which lie beyond the texts' (p. 10). Many scholars, while not disputing the value of placing language in a central role for textual interpretation and appreciation, might not endorse Anderson's theory of closed meaning-making. Despite this potentially questionable theoretical underpinning, or perhaps because Anderson does go beyond absolute semantic meaning in the texts, his approach works well in a book designed to offer linguistically-informed textual exegesis to a wide readership. [End Page 119]
In his examination of the language of the Gawain-poems, Anderson pays particular attention to the poet's exploitation of verbal ambiguity and polysemy to create texts that stimulate the imagination rather than prescribe interpretation. Using the idea of the 'dialogic imagination', Anderson traces the development of formal techniques (e.g., archaic language and metre, and verbal patterning and repetition) and thematic preoccupations (e.g., human fallibility and penitience), through the existing manuscript sequence of texts, from the explicitly religious Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience, and then to the secular romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
It is this last text that will be of greatest interest to most readers of this book. Anderson here, as throughout, provides useful subsections treating matters of key interest: 'The Green Knight', 'The Pentangle', 'Nature and Time', 'The Girdle', and, less obviously, 'The Catastrophe' and 'Illusion'. Many of these sections are very brief ('The Supernatural', for example, is covered in only one full page), but they do highlight focal points for the study of this complex, semiotically rich poem.
Anderson backs up his readings and critical insights with reference to recent scholarship, but self-consciously abstains from loading the text down with copious footnotes (and, given the amount of scholarship devoted to these texts in the last 40 years, there was ample opportunity for doing so). Anderson is judiciously selective throughout, both in the notes and in the relatively brief bibliography (pp. 241-44).
In the very brief afterword, 'The Poet and his Times', (pp. 237-39), Anderson argues that the Gawain-poems share a sense of personal urgency which might reflect the political context in which they were written, though since the little we can guess...