Gower Bibliography

Folklore and Powerful Women in Gower's 'Tale of Florent'

Peck, Russell A. "Folklore and Powerful Women in Gower's 'Tale of Florent'." In The English "Loathly Lady" Tales: Boundaries, Traditions, Motifs. Ed. Passmore, S. Elizabeth and Carter, Susan. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2007, pp. 100-146.


Peck argues that "John Gower's 'Tale of Florent' is the first sustained Loathly Lady narrative in English literature," and "that Gower, drawing on folk materials, put together the basic narrative as we know it. 'The Tale of Florent' then functioned as the primary literary source for 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' and, along with 'The Wife of Bath's Tale,' though less exclusively, for the Loathly Lady section of 'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle" (p. 100). Although "there is an 'Irishness' about Gower's narrative as it subtly explores oppressions of disenfranchisement" (p. 102), Peck believes Gower could not have known Irish sources directly, as has sometimes been suggested; rather, he constructed his tale out of a congeries of folk motifs likely in oral circulation—"the cultural stock of ancient stories, whether Irish, English, French, Indian, or even beyond the Indo-European hegemony" (p. 105). For one thing, the concept of sovereignty in the Irish sources is essentially political; but "for Gower and Chaucer the notion of sovereignty is personal" and "psychological" (pp. 102, 103). Hence Peck connects "Florent" and WBT with coming-of-age narratives: Florent (and in his way Chaucer's nameless knight-rapist) is "full of puberty" (p. 108) and in need of an education in order to discover himself. Thus for Peck the landscape of tale is interior, as he makes clear when he breaks down its action into three parts: 1) "First life-exposure: The setting out;" 2) "Second Life: Social entanglement;" 3) "Third life: Discovery" (pp. 108-09). Florent, he points out, must gain insight into himself, and also into "that other outside himself, the hag to which he finds himself married…he must begin to understand women, that other half of humanity that nature has made both like and different from himself" (p. 112). While for Peck "women define and control all phases of the plot" (p. 112), it is (as in all folk-tales of the sort he describes) "the stepmother" who, "although [she] does not appear until the end of the tale…is the principal determinant, what might be called (with apologies to Greimas) the "destinateur" of the story, the 'why' behind the loathly hag's circumstance" (p. 113). This "destinateur" permits Peck to delineate Gower's hag with the truly "loathsome lady" of folktale "narratives we know so well from childhood": she who is "the bestower of curses in dozens of animal tales where beautiful youth, both male and female, get transformed into birds, serpents, cats, pigs, frogs, or whatever. Usually she is jealous—some cranky fairy or hateful elder person who lacks youth, beauty, or paramour; or perhaps she is one who has simply been passed over herself…but who has, nonetheless, the power to dock her enemies of their sovereignty, leaving them in a state of deformity until that sovereignty can be restored" (p. 113). Since Peck's primary focus is Florent's coming of age as a grown-up male, it is vital to his argument that this female hag-figure be female, and he insightfully identifies the underlying threat to the male psyche—"male fears of woman's sexuality that characterize folklore variants on the vagina dentata" (p. 115)—with Gower's hag-wife, and pointedly with Dame Ragnelle and both the Wife of Bath and her Loathly Lady surrogate (pp. 115-16). But his secondary focus (not much behind-hand, in essence) is to clarify the relationship of Chaucer's tale to Gower's, and less importantly to the "Ragnelle" version (although ultimately Peck will iterate the several ways "Ragnelle" agrees with Gower, while taking "the issues of the poem a step beyond its predecessors [p. 125]). Both in Chaucer's WBT, and especially in "Ragnelle," Peck states, "the 'vagina dentata' motif implicit in Gower's story is prominent" (p. 117). His argument here is complex and rich, and resists easy summary, since Chaucer's Wife as a narrator is quite different from Gower's Genius, vastly more invested and consequently exponentially more polyvalent in her shaping of the tale she tells. Peck's central point—and the difference he finds between Gower and Chaucer—is that "Gower's simpler narrative has become a showboat for the Wife's creative ingenuity, her 'queynte fantasye' of what in real life is too often denied to women" (p. 121). His conclusion is worth quoting "à la lettre": "The configuration of Loathly Lady motifs which Gower activates are attuned to matriarchal tensions that may be traced back to the most ancient of myths of furies and blessed ones negotiating with an Apollonian world of laws that codependent victims (victims of hatred, chance, ill-will, disenfranchisement) ultimately move beyond. As they proceed they discover a higher ethic, one founded in recognition of the other and the subsequent recovery of personal sovereignty that makes possible mutual love. This reading is distinctly Gowerian" (p. 126). [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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