Gower Bibliography

Controlling the Loathly Lady, or What Really Frees Dame Ragnelle

Gaffney, Paul. "Controlling the Loathly Lady, or What Really Frees Dame Ragnelle." In The English "Loathly Lady" Tales: Boundaries, Traditions, Motifs. Ed. Passmore, S. Elizabeth and Carter, Susan. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2007, pp. 146-62.


"'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle' exemplifies the traditional stream of the Loathly Lady tale, little influenced by bookish traditions," Gaffney contends (p. 146). Thereafter substituting Roland Barthes' narratological distinction of histoire ("bare story") for "traditional stream," and discours ("the particular embodiment of a histoire") for "bookish traditions," and with recourse to John Miles Foley's and Carl Lindahl's notions of, respectively, "orally-derived" [sic] tales and oral/folk vs. "elite" styles, Gaffney seeks to situate the peculiar power of "Dame Ragnelle" in its indeterminate "discours," arguing that "the less fixed the meaning of a 'discours,' the more evocative it can be" and hence "the more is left to the audience" to "excavate." This suggests to him that tales originating in the oral tradition, and hewing closely to it, are "a different species of story, one in which the audience participates more in the construction of meaning" (p. 147). To illustrate this difference "and some of its special strengths," Gaffney compares "Dame Ragnelle" to Gower's "Tale of Florent" and Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale." Not surprisingly, he finds both Chaucer's and Gower's versions to be "elite" narratives, their "histoires" heavily reworked into exemplary discourses, each with a didactic point to make (p. 158 and passim.). Both Gower and Chaucer "seek to establish control over their sentence. This control is exercised through all manner of means: plot, style, characterization, and commentary"; "Ragnelle," on the other hand, "carried [no] such intent" (p. 158). Gower exerts control by making "his discourse more clerkly by giving it a classical setting and [his] characters Latin names" (p. 152) and by his addition of Latin glosses. He also emphasizes "the interior life, how the characters think and feel" (p. 153). This latter induces the audience also to think, and hence to interpret—the activity which in turn yields the "sentence," the point Gower wished to get across (p. 153). "'Florent's' strengths "are the strengths of good elite culture literature," as are those of the WBT, "while most of the strength of 'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle' are the strengths of folk literature"—as Gaffney sees it, that means to be indeterminately evocative, free "to take many shapes" (p. 158). [RFY. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 27.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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