Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

The author’s explanation is that a typical ‘magical’ plot is “a series of mental rituals through which participants bring about desires (in the mind, of course) and dispel fear or guilt.” Many people have recognised the importance of such mental role-play and exorcism, from the use of modern escapist literature and films to that of traditional fairytales. The late Bruno Bettelheim (whose integrity has recently been questioned) made such points in his The Uses of Enchantment: the meaning and importance of Fairy Tales (1975).

In essence, magical plots are seen through the eyes of the chief participant making the steps or moves. “The many characters in the plot will represent only a few characters” in the mind of the chief participant and often reappear in successive moves as doubles of each other, giving the chief participant a chance to explore a situation or relationship in a different way in order to reach a final resolution.

If you in principle accept this mental-ritual theory of Arthurian romance then you will enjoy The Magical Quest as it explores the structures and resolutions of the plots of Ywain, Perceval and Gawain in their various versions.

However, if you don’t accept it, you may still find the author’s attempt to solve the problem of Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Grail story of interest, as well as her discussion (she is an English specialist) of other literary texts as diverse as Jane Eyre, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Wuthering Heights, Treasure Island, The Lord of the Rings and Mills & Boons romances.


This short review was first published in 1991 in Pendragon: the journal of the Pendragon Society XXI/3 and here reposted, slightly revised, following my discussion in an earlier post of magical plots and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

There are other ways of looking at narrative structure, of course: for example Eugene Dorfman, in The narreme in the medieval romance epic: an introduction to narrative structures, introduced the concept of the narreme as a building block in medieval storytelling; while Vladimir Propp’s The Morphology of the Folktale proposed a complicated system of moves in analysing traditional oral narratives. I may get around to reviewing these and others in due course — but don’t hold your breath).

Harlech Castle (1831) by Henry Gastineau

7 thoughts on “Step by step

  1. Intriguing little review. Did you ever do anything with Propp? Thanks anyhow, lots to think about here “in little space,” Chris – although on first read I thought “mystical camp popular in the 70s” referred to my undergrad experience of religion…

    (I didn’t really – just a quick laugh tbh – but actually the more I think about Christian faux-medieval piety the more I think the links with Arthur need exploring, and not just with Tolkien)

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    1. Your comments, as always, very welcome, Nick, often encouraging me to throw a bit of light into some bit of obscurity I’ve inadvertently created. I read Propp quite a few years ago and all I remember is that I followed his line of argument almost to the last but that I was lost in his final sections when his schema seemed unduly contorted where particularly complex folk narratives were concerned.

      Dorfman’s narreme theory on the other hand seemed to work reasonably well the medieval epics he examined — his four-part division reminded me of W J Gruffydd’s flawed attempt to analyse the Mabinogi branches in terms of the various stages of Pryderi’s life (beginning with enfance) — though of course fairytale and other folk narratives rarely approach the convolutions of epic romances.

      ‘Mystical camps’ were well in evidence when I first became interested in the history and archaeology of the post-Roman period and with Arthurian literature of the later medieval period: Arthur and his court had been co-opted with a vengeance by earth-mysteries schools of thought in the 60s and I brushed up against visionary writers like George Trevelyan, John Michell, Bob Stewart and many others. Needless to say, I didn’t share their visions, laced as they were with leylines, astrology, global chakras, dowsing, modern paganism and whatever twitched the feathers on their wizardy staffs!

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  2. Interesting! I’m not a fan of the mental-ritual line of thinking, it seems at once overly indebted to Campbell and devoted to the psychoanalytical wishful thinking, without much regard for the outer world. I think I’ll pass 😉 but I’d be very interested in your review of Dorfman and Propp 😀

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    1. I don’t think Wilson references Campbell, but I’d have to check. From memory, pretty much all her references are from an English literature perspective, particularly literary criticism. I’ll get back to you that; as you can guess this is not my academic background; if anything can be said to be my academic background it might be music, except that I daydreamed through most of my undergrad years, and it’s miracle I graduated at all! So don’t expect great or innovative insights into either Dorfman or Propp!

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