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  • On Disability and Carework in Lestoire de Merlin
  • Alani Hicks-Bartlett

THE THIRTEENTH-CENTURY Arthurian Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail or Pseudo-Map Cycle, is a titanic work comprising related romances: Lestoire del saint Graal, Lestoire de Merlin, the Livre d'Artus (which is part of the Lestoire de Merlin, according to certain counts), the Livre de Lancelot del Lac (Lancelot Proper), La Queste del saint Graal, and the Mort Artus.1 Together, they attempt to recount the entirety of Arthurian romance while providing a foundational vision that aligns Arthurian legend with universal history.2 The second romance, Lestoire de Merlin, is a redacted version of the Prose Merlin3 that builds from Robert de Boron's adaptation4 of Geoffrey de Monmouth's work.5 Despite its foundational vision, Lestoire de Merlin's rendering of relational bonds challenges any straightforward denouement of genealogical origin stories. So too does its unique portrayal of disability and carework, which challenges and expands common medieval understandings of chivalric heroism that prioritize the individual. In its representation of a physically nonnormative body initially disregarded, scorned, and presumed weak—though ultimately considered exemplary for functioning well within chivalric contexts—Lestoire de Merlin offers a prime example of a disabled character successfully moving through chivalric romance as the protagonist of the episodes that concern him, as we shall see.6

Disabled characters throughout Arthurian literature are often limited to a marginal, "accessorizing" role within larger narratives (Maloney 364, Lecouteux 30–31), and dwarfs, specifically, are often merely utilized as literary devices,7 relegated to menial or peripheral roles as attendants or public entertainers (Metzler 88–89).8 The literary typification, stigmatization, and ubiquity of dwarfs in the Arthurian cycle are therefore somewhat of a commonplace; dwarfs, like Béroul's malicious Frocin in the Tristan, or the boorish antagonist in the famous sparrow-hawk episode of Chrétien's Erec et Enide, make a frequent yet fleeting appearance in numerous texts, and their motivations and priorities are often presented as cryptic or obscure. Occasionally there are also dwarfs with political agendas and rank, like Gribalo and Glodoalan, Erec et Enide's often overlooked dwarf kings, or Obéron, the charitable king in Huon de Bordeaux.9

Evadeam, the "dwarf knight" featured at the end of Lestoire de Merlin, presents an instructive distinction to both models. Recounted over several of [End Page 60] Lestoire's later episodes, this story also offers the text's fullest portrayal of medieval disability, and it departs in novel ways from the aforementioned 'accessorizing' or moralizing exemplary representation of dwarfs in other medieval texts (Maloney 364, Martineau 11–12). Although Evadeam's appearance and circulation throughout the romance has received relatively scant critical attention,10 his sustained protagonistic status in multiple episodes is quite unusual for medieval representations of disability and dwarfism. While the question of Evadeam's dwarfism showcases the particular difficulties of "disentangling the cultural narratives surrounding dwarfs […] from narratives surrounding disabilities" (Metzler 90), it is ultimately a story in which the 'politically valued' 'disabled' character occupies a more agential role. Furthermore, it examines the friability of the barriers separating disabled from nondisabled bodies, and evaluates the demarcations that separate what is marked as "deformed" from what is prized as "beautiful" by representing the "sighting/citing of the ugly" as Schweik aptly puts it (3).11 This hierarchization reveals the narratological priorities that interrogate familial and imperial lineage—one of Lestoire de Merlin's primary concerns. The way in which Evadeam reconciles his purportedly divergent dwarfism from his chivalric obligations shows his deft repudiation of "social discrimination" (Ginsburg and Rapp 54),12 while his relationship to other characters proposes a model of interrelationality and carework that expands the contours of extant scholarly appreciations of medieval Arthurian romance.13

Lestoire offers continued representations of embodied interrelationality and gendered carework14: it explores the emotional economies and "affective value" of care and the "complex dialectical relationship between caregiver and care recipient" by staging pivotal nonexploitative scenes of caregiving that are nonetheless regarded suspiciously by those exterior to the relationship (Erevelles 175).15 Rosemarie Garland-Thomson offers a useful critical framework for probing the matrices of power relations that accentuate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 60-73
Launched on MUSE
2022-01-24
Open Access
No
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