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Reviews 111 John Gardner. The Construction of the Wakefield Cycle. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1974. Pp. xii + 162. $8.95. In his Prologue, Professor Gardner traces clearly the nature and scope of his critical study of the Wakefield cycle: First, what this book tries to give is an overview of the Wakefield Corpus Christi play as a unified . . . work of art. I look closely at each of the more important pageants, showing fundamental rela­ tionships between them, and glance more hastily at shorter, cruder pageants, indicating how they work within the total scheme. . . . Second, I write with a different purpose from that of most medievalists who comment on the plays. I write not primarily for specialists in search of out-of-the-way information but for student-medievalists and literary generalists, people whose chief concern is aesthetic, (p. 1) With such an audience and aesthetic purpose in mind, then, Gardner attempts to explore the essential literary questions raised in the Wake­ field cycle—“the thematic use of verbal repetition, the ironic use of scriptural typology, the consistent manipulation of patterns of imagery (especially satanic imagery), and the oddly modern cutting of transi­ tional devices” (p. 2 )—in order to suggest parallels between ostensibly different Wakefield pageants. While the author’s objectives are admirable indeed, his criticism is frequently marred by simplistic reasoning, un­ substantiated statements, and misinterpretation. Even in his most illumin­ ating essays—the chapters on the Mactacio Abel, Noah, Abraham, and the Secunda Pastorum—Gardner apparently ignores his audience of “literary generalists,” for he lapses occasionally into bald assertions. In his treatment of the Mactacio Abel, for example, the author argues perceptively for the dramatic roles played by “ironic contrasts” and symbolism in the development of theme, thereby demonstrating how the Wakefield Master’s use of language and setting signalizes the importance of feudal concepts, especially the earthly and heavenly re­ lationships between lord and vassal. In order to buttress his claim that a conflict between power and love represents the organizing principle in Abel, Gardner outlines the significance of this theme in various Mid­ dle English poems, particularly the works of the Gawain-poet. At this point, however, the author’s potentially useful analogies are exploded, for he offers his readers simplistic commentary rather than penetrating analysis of the poems. For example, while Gardner maintains that the debate in Pearl hinges upon “the question whether the principle of order in the universe is love or power” (p. 26), it might be more ap­ propriate to note that the débat underscores the essential difference between earthly values and spiritual introspection. Through the teaching of the maiden the dreamer in Pearl gradually realizes that he must renounce all worldly desires and ideals in order to enjoy for eternity the visio pads. Similarly, in his brief explication of Sir Gawain, Gardner steps into the trap of misstatement, claiming that “Gawain accepts a supposedly magic girdle in hopes of drawing to himself power inde­ pendent of God’s love” (p. 26). More to the point, perhaps, Gawain accepts the alluring luf-lace simply because he wishes to preserve his life (SGGK, 11. 2040, 2368). The chapters on Noah and Abraham, however, highlight the Wake­ field Master’s employment of Christian typology, especially the dra­ matic identification of Noah and Isaac with Christ. While Gardner’s elucidation of the typological underpinnings of these plays is generally helpful and convincing, his arguments for the existence of numerous “typic” double entendres are frequently unwarranted. Two examples from the Wakefield Processus Noe cum filiis may clearly illustrate Gardner’s techniques. First of all, after Gardner quotes (p. 44) Uxor’s speech— “When we swete or swynk,/ Thou dos what thou thynk,/ Yit of mete and of drynk/ Haue we veray skant” (195-98)—he as­ sociates the “mete” and “drynk” with the true sources of spiritual nourishment, the body and blood of Christ in the form of Eucharistic bread and wine. In this instance, however, the author overstates the importance of typology, for Uxor’s allusion to lack of food and drink simply mirrors her growing dissatisfaction with poverty. Even Uxor’s words, “swete or swynk,” represent a traditional alliterative tag...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 177-179
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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