Gower Bibliography

Chaucer, Gower, and the Unknown Minstrel: The Literary Liberation of the Loathly Lady

Vasta, Edward. "Chaucer, Gower, and the Unknown Minstrel: The Literary Liberation of the Loathly Lady." Exemplaria 7 (1995), pp. 395-418.


Vasta submits the three best-known ME versions of the "loathly lady" story — Gower's tale of Florent, Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," and "The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell" — to an analysis in terms of Bakhtin's notions of the confrontational and liberating powers of the grotesque and the "carnivalesque." By the standards that these terms imply, Gower's and to a lesser degree Chaucer's versions both fall short. By the time of the three English romances, the loathly lady had already been severely marginalized from her earlier status as part of the official culture. Unlike her Greek and Celtic counterparts, she bears no sovereignty of her own, but must win a male-bestowed sovereignty in order to regain her place in the culture from which she has been excluded. The renewal she offers, moreover, is merely personal rather than natural or cultural. In this last respect, however, the implications of individual renewal progressively widen in the three ME versions, finally reaching something like the cultural renewal of her earlier manifestations in "Dame Ragnell." The means for both her confrontation with official culture and the renewal that she gives is provided by grotesquerie and laughter, which "turns the usual, officially dominated world upside down and inside out." Gower's tale of Florent would seem to have least patience with the notion of the grotesque, humorlessly employing the loathly lady in service of a straightforward moral on obedience and patience that is endorsed by and sustains the official culture. The "aura of official culture ideology and power" is maintained in the tale by the heavy emphasis on contracts and legal obligation. In the conclusion to the tale, Florent's circumstances are improved, but there is no transformation in his character, much less in the society in which he moves, since all takes place in private. The loathliness of the hag, moreover, itself has no carnivalesque or redemptive function, but is merely the effect of her stepmother's antipathy. Chaucer's ideology is equally conventional and equally supportive of the ruling culture status quo, and it is placed even more obviously in the center of the tale, in the loathly lady's address to her new husband. The husband in Chaucer's version, however, faced with a more complex choice than in Gower's, is enlightened to an "anti-official ideology" in his active recognition of the woman's sovereignty. Assigning the tale to WB gives universality to the loathly lady's claims, but WB's own claim to authority is restricted and contained by the humor with which Chaucer treats her for her deviation from official cultural standards. In neither Gower's nor Chaucer's tale is official culture transformed to incorporate the previously marginalized individual. Such liberation and renewal do occur in "The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell." In this poem, which Vasta labels a "carnivalesque romance," the loathly lady much more clearly matches Bakhtin's definition of the "grotesque," both in appearance and in function; and in her cheerful and fearless lack of regard for convention and social restraint, she offers the "perfect example of Bakhtin's carnival spirit." The laughter in the tale, moreover, is equally at the expense of the lady herself and the seriousness with which the official culture of the court attempts to maintain its dignity. With the removal of the mask of her loathliness and Gawain's surrender of authority and freedom, the entire court is transformed: the previously sober Gawain become less respective of convention, Ragnell fills the previously gloomy court with play, and she reconciles Arthur with her brother Gromer. The romance ends with the narrator's prayer for his own release from prison, in which he repeatedly draws upon the language of rebirth, in both respects echoing the redemptive structure of the poem as a whole. "Unlike Chaucer and Gower, who show the power of the official culture confronting wrongdoers, this romancer shows the official culture's power as the wrongdoer, and the victims of the wrongful power as not only correcting the court but as renewing and perpetuating it." [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 15.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations

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