Category Archives: Literary Analysis


‘“ both eyes, (the loss of) and to find someone

     who talked his own dialect. We

     talked of every boy and girl in the valley

     but when he came back from leave

he was sad because he had been able to feel

     all the ribs of his cow ….”’

The Pisan Cantos, 76: 190-194


In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks of the final days when God shall judge the nations and people, and the worthy who remain “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks” (The Bible, Isiah 2.4). God is saying the righteous shall know peace, yet Pound paints a far more pessimistic picture for the wounded young men who are returning home from war. The man’s cow has been poorly treated, it can provide little sustenance, and may even be near death which could devastate a poor farmer who relies on his livestock not just to eat but also to produce an income. Yet beyond just this farmer’s situation, Pound reveals how the whole natural world has been mistreated during the war, that so much which requires care has been neglected, that what the young men were off fighting for was dying in their absence.

In the time of Isaiah, a cow might also provide the meat of the sacrifice needed to maintain the covenant with God, yet could such a starved beast be worthy enough for God? Perhaps this farmer is sad because he finds himself in a similar situation with Cain whose sacrifices were not respected by God. Perhaps the farmer senses the beast’s exposed ribs as evidence of the distance he and God have grown apart and he is reminded of how much killing he was involved with during the war. And, like Cain whose sacrifice was rejected by God because he assumed it was his works alone, not faith, which would grant him favor, the farmer may see his reprieve from war as merely a temporary situation – he is only on leave after all, which is ironic since he has lost both his eyes and yet the army still expects him back at some point.

As the farmer touches his starving cow he is reminded of the endless and fruitless toil of his lonely existence. While “We” have the luxury to gossip about “every boy and girl in the valley”, the farmer, alone, must sustain not only himself, but all of us who depend on him. Just as “We” depended on his service in the Army to protect our lives, “We” continue to depend on him to feed and nourish us. Yet how can he provide for so many when his cow has been starved? How much life can he wring out of the land and livestock? How much life is even left in the earth which has been bombed and blasted and turned into a moonscape of rubble? If the cow cannot eat, how can “We”? The entire fate of existence seems to rest upon a blind man and his starving cow.

Starved of faith, food, and friendship, the farmer and his cow resemble the most horrific terrors of war. The cow’s exposed ribs resemble the millions who were starved in concentration camps: men, women, and children who in broad daylight were rounded up while their fellow citizens did nothing. Where was God when endless trainloads of people were turned into ash in a perverted sacrifice to evil? Where was God when everyone else let it happen? Why did “We” not sustain our neighbors with the bravery required to stand up to injustice, to sacrifice ourselves in an act of pure faith in God that could have saved millions? Yet we willingly went blind and so God rejected our empty actions. “We” only “talked of every boy and girl in the valley”, not acted in their defense.

Yet while this poor farmer took up the call of his nation, would it not have been better had he stayed home? Was the cause he fought for righteous? Was the nation he killed for virtuous, or did he take part in an act of complete barbarity, blindly following the rallying cry of a corrupt state? Perhaps “We” who “talked of every boy and girl in the valley” are like the women in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” who, having also succumb to the state’s propaganda, gave a white feather to all the young men who believed





wars” (78: 224-228).


This blind farmer, who carries with him the memory of war, speaks with the unique “dialect” of wartime experience that the boys and girls of the valley are ignorant of. Yes, he is blind, and he may try to tell them that pursuing senseless violence against each other only leads to misery, but he might as well be speaking a dead language to deaf ears. In fact, he is speaking for the dead, a “dialect” that no one living wants to understand. And in this sense Pound and the farmer are deeply connected at the center beating heart of this Canto. The cow’s ribs resemble the bars on Pound’s cell, and Pound’s efforts to connect all of history, time, truth, and memory are only seen by the camp psychologists as curious scribbled poetry and not the cry of all human experience that begs to be heard by every boy and girl and even Presidents.

And now “We” reap what “We” have sown: a God who seems to have turned his back on all of humanity as he did with Cain, a starving cow, and a blind farmer who laments his fate because whom he placed his faith in turned out to be a false God, like the golden calf in the desert.


Yet perhaps there is hope here, too. Pound writes “he was sad because he had been able to feel”, and this line in isolation reveals that the farmer is still capable of feeling, even if it sadness and even if it does not follow sight. The farmer has not been totally deprived of his humanity, he is still capable of intense emotion even after suffering though the horrors of war. The farmer reaches out to his cow, starved as it is, and places his hand on the animal, comforts the beast with the simple gesture of a gentle, caring touch. He reconnects with what for so long he had been away from and begins the process of healing, of creating life rather than taking it. His first act home is not to pick up the hammer and beat his blood-soaked sword into a ploughshare, but to simply allow himself to be reminded of his connection with life.

Pound creates a humble scene of this blind farmer caressing his cow between the gentle sloping green-grassy hills below the snowy mountain peaks as if the entire weight of this single act of human kindness was enough to impress a sacred spot “in the valley” that could shelter and nurture all those with enough faith who chose to live there. He is like Moses descended from the surrounding mountains into the valley below to bring the true law – righteousness – to those who have been starved with false faith in the bombed-out desert wasteland they themselves created. This gift may seem meager and nearly incapable of sustaining life, but the farmer can offer his starving cow to provide the nourishment the soul requires.

Thus the farmer seems to be existing in two possible states: one in which he has been forsaken in a wilderness of death, and another where he is like the shepherd who, though blind, through kindness, can lead his starving flock out of the valley of the shadow of death because he has faith God is still with him, will restore his soul, and will prepare a table for him in the presence of his enemies. The cow still lives and thus God has maintained the sacrament in kind. The farmer can now either choose to accept this offering or turn his back because it appears too meager.

This is a critical moment for the farmer and Pound uses the ellipses to denote the uncertainty of what the outcome shall be. Pound is requiring each of us to complete the image, to freely choose which direction we will walk. Do we listen to Pound’s and the farmer’s strange “dialect” and put down our swords to be beaten into ploughshares so that the life of the farm can increase? Or do we turn our backs and send Pound and the farmer back to war, their eyes missing though they see far better than any of us do?

Additional Works Cited


The Bible, King James Version. Bible Hub, 2018.,

Virgil and Ovid on Aeneas and Dido

These two texts are foundational in the Western Tradition’s view of passionate love and they highlight the misogyny inherent in Roman culture that valued the male’s  “virtue” – virtus – of strength and masculinity and his devotion to Jove over the later Christian piety which is portrayed as feminine (motherly virtue and chastity).

In context, Aeneas loves his country, not the woman whom he had an affair with (and got pregnant) and excuses his misogyny by basically saying that the gods told him to move on out of Carthage.

We also see the tension between what Dido believes is a legitimate marriage and what Aeneas believes is an illegitimate marriage. Though she claims the lightning of the gods serve as the wedding torches and the gods themselves are witness to a legitimate ceremony, he does not recognize that particular supernatural authority. In fact we could tease this out as being the bedrock upon which the conflict between Rome and Carthage was built and why the two cities hated each other.

We also have the theme of love as insanity where she is like the wounded animal who, with the arrow having pierced her still as she tries to escape the hunter, stands in contrast to Aeneas who is passive. The woman is described as being little more than a terrified beast who lives off of instinct and emotion whereas the man is the passive, rational master hunter.

It is important to remember, however, that Virgil’s and Ovid’s audience were well aware what they were writing was a historical fiction, just as we know the film Gladiator is a historical fiction and as Shakespeare’s audience know Richard III was historical fiction. Yet the images are so powerful and convincing to an audience that they become embedded in our thinking and traditions and culture until the not just the stories, but the cultural attitudes present in the stories remain with us through the centuries.


Le Morte Darthur: The Masculine & Feminine State Dynamic

“Ryght so there cam a damesell into the halle and salewed the kyng and prayde hym of succoure.”

Sir Gareth of Orkney, 226:12

The damesell’s interaction with Arthur at court reveals a political complexity concerning the obligations between men and women in the context of the medieval romance genre. Here, women possess considerable power and influence and are just as capable as the men to perform in the state political sphere. This male / female relationship dynamic illustrates the intricacy of the roles both men and women can play in the political realm and reveals the considerable power women actually possess in spite of the majority of Malory’s word count being devoted to masculine action and influence.

The damesell, unable to take care of the Rede Knyght of the Rede Laundys by herself, addresses Kynge Arthur in person at his court in hopes this masculine governing body will provide her with necessary service, “[my sustir] is beseged with a tirraunte,” (226:16) and that the damesell has “come to you for succoure” (226:18). The damesell understands that the purpose of Arthur’s administration is an effort to bring order to all England, which she is showing respect to by coming directly to Arthur as well as deferring to his rule. However, in not revealing the full facts of the case, the name and location of her “sustir”, she is refused. Though Arthur and his (male) knights have sworn and are obligated to protect ladies from harm (the Pentecostal Oath), especially against a “tirraunte” (226:16) who is doing such harm, Arthur can refuse this obligation since the damesell is also refusing information for him. The damesell, understanding that Arthur cannot just send out his military without having full reliable information, shows political tact, “than muste I seke forther” (226:35) when Arthur denies her request.

While she does ultimately obtain a champion, Sir Gareth, “graunte me to have this adventure of this damesell,” (227:7) since his true royal lineage is kept from her she does not see the worth that this “kychyn knave” could honorably provide for her, and in fact grows angry, “she wexed angry” (227:17) and insults Arthur himself in front of the whole assembled court, “Fy on the” (227:16). The damesell requires the full and honorable force of the masculine state institution to uphold its obligations to protect the people, especially in this case since it’s a lady in need of assistance, and so she feels justified in behaving openly hostile towards the king since she believes these obligations are not only not being met, she also believes her honor and need of assistance is being mocked by being assigned this “kychyn knave” as if it were some sort of bastardized consolation prize. For his part, Arthur shows political tact and restraint by not punishing the damesell for insubordination or disrespect since she is, after all, one of the lady’s he has sworn to protect, a fact the damesell is well aware of and knows will protect her in this verbal sparring match.

Yet Arthur does have an option that allows him to uphold his protection obligations without necessarily being directly implicated in the damsell’s affair should the adventure turn out bad for the him and the state. By allowing Gareth to be knighted not by the head of the state, Arthur, but by his lieutenant, Lancelot “than Sir Launcelot gaff hym the order of knyghthode” (229:16), Arthur can still save face and not neglect his obligations. In turn, the damesell, though begrudgingly, does her part in shaping the character of this fresh knight by constantly testing him, either through verbal abuse, “thou stynkyst all of the kychyn,” (229:28) or by upholding the chivilaristic rule of mercy as a teaching moment (as far as she believes it to be) for Gareth, “sle hym nat, for and thou do thou shalt repente hit” (236:9).

Thus both parties, male and female, show political shrewdness and take full advantage of the complicated opportunities which have been given to each of them. For the damesell’s sake, at worst Gareth would be killed by one of the numerous knights they will encounter during the adventure and so she will be free to just “seke forther,” and in Arthur’s case he has an opportunity to remove yet another “tirraunte” from his kingdom. In their own ways, both Arthur and the damesell possess great influence in the shaping of society and in upholding chivalry.

Formal Differences in “The Lamb” and “The Tyger”

The formal differences between Blake’s “The Lamb” and “The Tyger” highlight the poet’s conflicting ideas concerning the dual nature of a creator. In both poems Blake uses rhymed couplets which suggests an overall order being imposed upon nature by a creator/artist, however, the assonance of the end rhymes in “The Lamb”, such as “thee” and “mead” (long e), “lamb” (long a), and “child” (long i), contrast in tonality with the harsher consonant end rhymes of “night” (short i, sharp t), “beat” (short e, sharp t), and “grasp” (short a, sharp p), found in “The Tyger”. The softer, soothing vowels of the former poem evoke a sense of comfort and reassurance which is also representative in the structure of the individual stanzas. While “The Lamb” has only two stanzas with indentations highlighting the comforting repetitions of “Little Lamb …”, in contrast, “The Tyger” uses violent, warlike vocabulary and is fragmented consisting of 6 stanzas whose only repetition is found in the lines “What immortal hand or eye / Could [Dare] frame thy fearful symmetry,” which creates an overwhelming sense of discomfort. Blake has also structured both poems to act as a sort of dialectic, however unlike “The Lamb” which has an answer for the question of “who made thee”, “The Tyger” offers no such reassurance, the question is left unanswered and the poem concludes with a question mark. While both poems ask similar questions about the nature of a creator, Blake reveals a complicated relationship he may have had with this creator, one in which the creator can both be “mild” but who can also “twist the sinews of thy heart”.

The Boundaries Of Myth

Late in Homer’s Iliad the “ghost of stricken Patroclus,” (Homer, 23: 124) appears before Achilles in a vision. In this scene the living and the dead, the realm of the mortal and the realm of the shadowy afterlife bridges a gulf which normally separates them and serves as a metaphor for a human’s desire to understand what will become of their mortal essence once they die, Achilles “stretched his loving arms / but could not seize [Patroclus], no, the ghost slipped underground / like a wisp of smoke,” (Homer, 23: 117). Humanity’s place in the universe is uncertain and dangerous and so myth attempts to address these unknowns by defining the boundaries which separate us from wild animals, or between men from women, the hero from the citizen, or between the living and the dead who, like Patroclus, continue to look to the living for remembrance. These myths guided the peoples of Proto Indo-European descent towards an understanding of how humanity should live and what humanity’s purpose is within the greater cosmic fabric of the universe.


The Rig Veda:The Boundary Of The Classes

For there to be death there must first come a creation and the earliest Proto Indo-European myths each deal with this subject. However, unlike later myths whose audience consisted of the ordinary citizen who might have the leisure to contemplate the fate of their own soul, these earliest myths were written by and performed for priests and the gods they prayed to. These myths show how the earliest people dealt with and attempted to make sense of the unknown, be it invaders from foreign lands, or droughts and floods which ruined the annual crops. Their world was full of immediate dangers and mystery, unlike later myth which tends to deal with more esoteric concerns, and so their myths helped make sense of what was affecting their daily lives and gave these people a semblance of control over their destiny if only they carried out the proper rituals and appeased the gods who they believed were in control of the universe.

Responsible for these rituals were the priests (the Brahmin), one of the four classes created when “the gods [created] the world by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa,” (Rig Veda, 29). The other classes, the warrior class who fought, the People, and the servants (slaves), were also created out of this act of dismemberment (sociogony) when Purusa (known here as the Man) was divided into multiple segments; “his arms were made into the Warrior, his thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born,” (Rig Veda, 31). Here the act of creating society and the class structure is born from the sacrifice of the Man and in this way all of society is connected to the Man, a sort of shared consciousness common to all classes, but also deeply relegated to their proper place within society.

From the rest of the Man, the entire universe is created (cosmogony), “From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear,” (Rig Veda, 31). What we have here, and what the priests may have ritualized in the temples to honor this act of creation, was human sacrifice. Though as grisly as this may sound to us, the act of an individual giving up their life for the greater good of society is the deeper meaning. Each of the classes must work together and within their boundaries to maintain order in society and the universe. Death is transformed into life and the boundary between the two is no longer two separate states, but rather one continuous existence, “With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice,” (Rig Veda, 31).


The Prose Edda: The Geographic Boundary

While the earliest, least sophisticated peoples may have taken these creation myths at their word – actual human sacrifice and all – later myths attempted to explain the nuances of creation as having a more tangible existence. In the Prose Edda, Gangleri asks Odin (disguised as three kings), “‘How were things set up before the different families came into being and mankind increased?’”, (Prose Edda, 13). Odin explains how the world was divided into three regions: foggy Niflheim, fiery Muspellsheim, and the Ginnungagap melt-zone. From the boundary between Muspellsheim and Ginnungagap, “The likeness of a man appeared and was named Ymir,” (Prose Edda, 14). As in the Rig Veda creation myth, a being is sacrificed to create the earth and order, and a hierarchy is established, “It is my belief that this Odin and his brothers are the rulers of heaven and earth,” (Prose Edda, 15). In fact the very structure of this myth suggests man’s proper place in creation where the gods rule from Heaven like a panel of judges, and man lives below, “behind Midgard’s wall,” (Prose Edda, 18) in Asgard (Troy) where Odin can, “see through all worlds and into all men’s doings,” (Prose Edda, 18).

However, unlike the Rig Veda in which the cosmic consciousness is one with all creation, including all of mankind, this later myth sets up a strong dividing line where man not only must know his place in society here on Earth, but also on the cosmic scale where he is subservient to the gods. Odin sits not only as a king, but also as a judge who is keeper of the law. This suggests, along with mankind living behind the wall of Midgard the further refinement of human civilization into cities with laws that apply to everyone and not just the laborers and slaves born from the less desirable cuts of the sacrificed Man who live under the warriors and priests that were formed from the better cuts of the Man.

Yet man does at least have the opportunity to interact with the Gods as Gangleri does when Odin holds court for him. The boundary between the two worlds is crossed (albeit temporarily) and man – here a king, not a priest –  is educated as to how the universe was created and what his place in it should be. Unlike the priests who performed the rituals of the Rig Veda in order to maintain the delicate balance of the universe, most likely in secret rituals hidden away from the average worker toiling away in the fields, the mysteries of the universe are revealed to a political elite who can then use this knowledge to order the laws of their societies in the image of the gods.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The Boundary Between Male And Female

The two creation myths we’ve explored so far have been exclusively a male endeavor, the Man is sacrificed to create the universe, and the Frost Giant, Ymir is another male figure from whom the physical world is ordered over which Odin, yet another male, rules and judges. These myths may have been adequate to explain how the universe was ordered on the grand scale, however, the sexual union between man and woman is how humanity creates life on Earth.

As we see in later myths, the male is responsible for creation and holds the power of creation, yet the female originally held this power. The Babylonians believed Tiamat, a female goddess, was the progenitor god, a goddess who gives birth to the gods, much like Aditi does in the Rig Veda, “Apsu, the first one, their begetter / And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233). Tiamat, an ocean goddess, is identified with the fertility symbol of the fish, and it is her mixing with the fresh waters of Apsu (symbolic of the mixing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) which brings about life. Once again we see how the mixing of boundaries, as with the Niflheim and Muspellsheim zones, is responsible for creation.

Ancient belief also held that the female was complete in herself since she alone could give birth (parthenogenesis). This female realm is one of pure mythos where the moon (the cosmic) regulates the menstrual cycle, where she is able to self-produce milk to feed the infant, and where the baby is born from an ocean of life inside of her. Yet while Tiamat (the woman) is responsible for bearing all life, her cosmic power is usurped by the male destructive force. When Tiamat shows compassion towards the gods who disturbed her, “And Tiamat became mute before them; / However grievous their behavior to her,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 233), this sets in motion a war that will eventually be her undoing, a war in which a male, Marduk, is able to consolidate power from the other gods in order to succeed. In fact his victory is very much like a rape, “He shot an arrow which pierced her belly, / split her down the middle and slit her heart,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 253). Through force (overthrow) the male takes the power of creation away from the woman, or at least contains it so that he may use it for his own advantage, “He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels {from it},” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 255).

This myth attempts to explain why the male is necessary at all in the act of creation and sets up the distinction where the male becomes a creator Sky God who rules above everyone, while the woman is relegated to the realm of Earth. Together they are both necessary in the act of creation – the compassionate woman who nourishes and the powerful male who fights – yet a hierarchy is clearly established where the male reigns above the woman through force.


Myths From Mesopotamia: The City / Wilderness Boundary

Similar to Marduk, Gilgamesh is a male authority figure who uses his power to get what he wants from women, “Gilgamesh would not leave [young girls alone], / The daughters of warriors, the brides of young men. / The gods often heard their complaints,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 52). Marduk is interfering with the order of his society by disrespecting the union between a lawfully married man and woman, and as we explored previously with Odin and Gangleri, the laws of society are based directly from the image of the god rulers. Yet unlike our previous characters, Gilgamesh is not a god but rather a mortal hero (however, he is still at least still semi-divine), as well as someone who probably actually existed in the third millennium B.C.E. Thus the gods are no longer at the center of the story with their cosmic struggles of creation, but the focus here is more human and the story more grounded in a reality of kings and rulers and unlike the gods who have the power to do as they please, humanity – including the hero – must abide by the laws of society.

Gilgamesh’s actions creates discord within the city walls and it is these city walls which separates civilization from the unknown wilderness; within is order, law, culture, and the people who worship the gods; outside is chaos and disorder. This contrast is highlighted between the relationship between Enkidu, a wild-born man who has no concept of civilization, and Gilgamesh who rules in the city, albeit with little regard to the people he rules over. Yet the two need each other in that Gilgamesh needs the friendship of someone who is his equal, while Enkidu benefits from the civilizing force of the city. In a sense the two friends cross their respective boundaries and form a sort of marriage in which the partnership is a benefit to each other as well as to their civilization.

Overall we see a tempering of the two respective states man could live in (wild vs civilized) and by joining together both men are improved. After Enkidu has sex with the socially experienced Shamhat, “The gazelles saw Enkidu and scattered,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), and “he had acquired judgment {?}, had become wiser,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 56), in other words he becomes civilized because he now possesses reason, unlike the wild animals, and so is kicked out of the world of beasts, much like we see in the Book of Genesis, another Semitic text dealing with the attainment of (forbidden) knowledge which then separates humanity from the wilds. And with the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh has given up his independence in favor of a mutually beneficial relationship, one which he mourns deeply when Enkidu dies, “Gilgamesh mourned bitterly for Enkidu his friend,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95).


The Heroic Boundary

The key element which makes a hero a Hero is that, unlike the gods who cannot die, the mortal can. The hero’s actions against great odds while knowing he could be killed are what makes him a hero, but this quest for heroic status – immortality – is a fictional immortality. Unlike women who can self-regenerate (Tiamat through parthenogenesis, or through just regular mortal childbirth), the male hero must find his immortality in great deeds and from the stories that are told about him after he dies.

One of the common great deeds in myth is through the slaying a monster: Gilgamesh must slay Humbaba, “Thus the weapons of Gilgamesh succeeded against Humbaba,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 74), Indra slays the dragon, “He killed the dragon who lay upon the mountain;” (Rig Veda, 149), Sigurd kills Fafnir, “Sigurd plunged the sword up under the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt,” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 63), and Heracles performs his labors. This heroic state of the monster killer is contrasted to the fate of Enkidu who does not have the heroic capacity to face the inevitability of death and so his body rots into the Earth, “Vermin eat [like (?)] an old [garment],” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 123). And so even more than slaying a monster, it is the slaying of death, or the overcoming of the fear of death, which separates a hero from the rest of us. However, Gilgamesh admits that, “I am afraid of Death,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and in a reversal from earlier in the story, “I saw the lions and was afraid,” (Myths From Mesopotamia, 95), and so his journey of finding actual immortality (to become like a God) is a failure, but as a hero his immortality lives on in the fame his deeds brought him.


Medea: The Boundary Of The Oath

In Euripides’ play, the Nurse tells us of Medea, “And she herself helped Jason in every way. / This is indeed the greatest salvation of all – / For the wife not to stand apart from the husband,” (The Medea, 59). In this we are shown the sanctity of the union between man and woman (a sanctity which Gilgamesh earlier had disrupted), and the great power that comes when a man and woman are joined together (marriage). And as we have seen in earlier myths, this union is a civilizing force that holds society together (as with Enkidu and Gilgamesh). Though men and women differ on the cosmic scale, it is necessary for them to work together in order to reproduce and maintain the cosmic cycle of life and regeneration Female), and power and security (male). Yet Jason, though he is the man and maintains the hierarchy where women are subservient to their husbands, does not honor his responsibility to uphold the sacred bond between himself and his wife, “And poor Medea is slighted, and cries aloud on the / Vows they made to each other,” (The Medea, 59). Perhaps as the hero Jason felt himself not beholden to this earthly responsibility towards the law, but Medea, though a woman, is not as powerless as we might assume.

Medea is an aristocrat and so she understands that power comes from being ruthless as well as from possessing intelligence (a luxury afforded the wealthy in a civilized society) similar to the knowledge Shamat uses to subdue Enkidu. However, unlike Tiamat who was willing to look past the rowdy gods who annoyed her rest, Medea is not compassionate. Medea is a foreigner in her husband’s land (patrilocal society) and while she cannot rely on her own family to help (she did kill many of them, after all), aiding her is her homeopathic knowledge of poisons and potions making her a sort of perverted fertility goddess, as we see with her cauldron of rejuvenation. In other words, this makes her a dangerous person to break a vow with, which might be one of the (misogynist) reasons Hesiod describes women as, “a great affliction to mortals as they dwell with their husbands,” (Theogony, 20). Yet Medea gives voice to all women who have given up their families, their friends, and their homelands for the sake of their husbands and children. Medea longs for equality, “I would very much rather stand / Three times in the front of battle then bear one child,” (The Medea, 67) yet in spite of this she has given her life to Jason. When Jason breaks this vow, he incurs the full weight of her wrath. Medea has nothing in her world except Jason and the favor of his family; without that she has nothing left to lose.

Thus the breaking of the oath of marriage literally kills the order of the family, “Your children are dead, and by their own mother’s hand,” (The Medea, 103). And unlike previous myths from which the bodies of the slain were used as ingredients of creation, here it a sacrifice, quite literally since these were her own children, to the sanctity of the oath of marriage. Order has been restored through vengeance and death. Thus medea possess both the traits of the male hero and the female life-bringer.


The Boundary Of Duty And Honor

“What if I put down my studded shield / and heavy helmet, prop my spear on the rampart / and go forth, just as I am, to meet Achilles,” (Iliad, 545). As we have seen earlier with Gigamesh who also had a crisis of confidence, here Hector questions the point of the war. He wonders if it would be better, “to give back Helen,” (Iliad, 545) in hopes of saving Troy from the vengeance of his enemy. Yet unlike Medea who does not hesitate to sacrifice her family for the sake of the oath between her and Jason, Hector thinks of his son, “and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms, lifting a prayer to Zeus and the other deathless gods,” (Iliad, 211). Perhaps there is more to civilized life than war and death? The child, too seems to intuit the danger of war, “but the boy recoiled, / cringing against his nurse’s full breast, / screaming out at the sight of his own father,” (Iliad, 211), but it is ambiguous if the child is frightened by the possibility of his father’s death in battle, or is terrified by the possibility Hector might waver in his duty to fight for the family (a true hero must face death, after all).

Hector’s Hamlet-like soul-searching is contrasted with Achilles who will, “show no mercy, / no respect for me, my rights – he’ll cut me down / straight off,” (Iliad, 545). Like Gilgamesh who wavered and failed in his bid for god-like immortality, Hector, too does not meet the qualification of a true hero, like Achilles. Yet unlike Enkidu who was wild and barbarian but not of heroic stock, it is the invaders outside the city walls, the men, like Achilles, who are willing to give up their lives in a moment’s notice who are the heroes of the story. The hero is not found behind walls contemplating his mortality, but rather exists outside civilization, much like Sigmund and Sinfjotli do when they don the wolf skins and live as heroes, yet outlaws, too (The Saga of the Volsungs, 44). In fact the hero has become incompatible with civilization, as we see with Hercules whose ancient PTSD brought on by years of heroic deeds causes him to destroy his family. There is no heroic glory and immortality in the city, only temporary safety from men (men metamorphosed into wolves) like Achilles. The city is full of intelligent people who are quick to use their intelligence over the sword in an effort to preserve their lives and honor, people like Medea who used her power to uphold these virtues, and Hector who only wears the armor of a hero, “The rest of his flesh seemed all encased in armor, / burnished, brazen – Achilles’ armor that Hector stripped,” (Iliad, 552), but is really an imposter who is chased around his safe city walls by the truly heroic man / wolf. In the end Hector performed his duty, but his wavering in how to perform his duty was his downfall, a duty Achilles does not fail to uphold.

In this essay we have explored several distinct boundaries found in common all through early Proto Indo-European myths. These boundaries attempt to define humanity’s proper place within a universe that otherwise is dangerous and unforgiving. And much like the gods who rely on humanity to continually worship them and give them a meaningful existence less they cease to exist altogether, humanity relies on myth to give their own lives meaning, to create order out of chaos just as the gods did when they created the universe. By creating myth, humanity ultimately creates the whole universe, a universe of law and duty and order, a universe where humanity understands their role amidst a vast, uncertain wilderness.

M. Butterfly: Marxism: The State’s Stage Directions

The opening stage directions of the play M. Butterfly are a microcosm of the Marxist power-dynamic. In just these few opening paragraphs we are not only presented with the individual’s powerlessness within the State as a being coerced by the repressive state apparatus, but also as an interpolated subject of the ideological state apparatus. In this essay I will examine only the initial stage directions on page 1 of the play as it relates to the central concepts of Marxist criticism.

The play’s first line presents us with the power the state holds over the individual, “M. Gallimard’s prison cell. Paris,” (Hwang, 1). We do not yet know who this individual is, only that the state has imprisoned them. For all we know this “M. Gallimard” is a sort of everyman, a representation of our own powerless against the power of the state. The stage directions go on to further enforce the power of the state, “Lights fade up,” (Hwang, 1) as if the unseen hand of the all-powerful state is in complete control of every facet of this individual’s life. And we the audience who are viewing this individual on stage are mimicking one of the roles of the state, that of a prison guard much like was found in the Panopticon where the individual is continually on display and, “Inspection function[s] ceaselessly,” (Foucault, 551). The play is giving us a representation of the repressive state apparatus, the force the state holds to coerce and exert power upon the individual as well as the inability of the individual to hide from or escape this power.

As the lights rise and reveal in detail who this Gallimard is, we are presented with a critique of not just the repressive state apparatus, but also of the ideological state apparatus. Whereas the former is involved in power and coercion over the individual, the later is involved with how that individual operates within the state and what is expected of that individual. Though Gallimard’s situation is humble, he nevertheless is in possession of a “comfortable bathrobe,” (Hwang, 1), and two pieces of technology. For comparison sake, upstage we can see a Chinese woman in “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) dancing to Chinese music. This comparison is important in that it reinforces the expected norms (as seen through Western eyes) of the two cultures and what the state expects from each individual on stage. Gallimard is presented as a man of leisure, albeit imprisoned, and he has the comforts of his culture’s technology while the indistinct Chinese dancer wears what a Westerner would assume is appropriate Chinese attire.  If we look deeper, we are presented with the image of a Western man who has (a few) creature comforts, but is ultimately imprisoned by his own culture’s ideology. Unlike the dancer who is (seemingly) at least more free than Gallimard to move about and dance, Gallimard wears “a sad smile on his face,” (Hwang, 1). There is no joy for Gallimard as he is imprisoned not only by the state but also by his state’s ideology. The focus on the objects that surround these individuals – his bathrobe, her traditional dress, the music – make up the materialism that defines these characters consciousness.

In the third paragraph of the opening stage directions of the play, we are shown how Gallimard’s cultural ideology attempts to override that of the dancer’s, “the Chinese opera music dissolves into a Western opera,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s ideology, that which is the norm of his oppressive culture, bleeds over and attempts to take control of a whole other culture. And so we are presented not just with a representation of colonialism, but with the power of cultural ideology over the individual. And if we take a step even further back, the stage directions themselves are acting both as a repressive state apparatus by controlling every minute action of all the individuals on stage, as well as an ideological state apparatus by defining what the proper “roles” are for each actor on stage. In other words, we could interpret the stage directions as being a representation of the state’s power over the individual.

At this point in the play the actors have not acted and we, the audience, can only watch and interpret the images on the stage. And while we do not know anything personal about Gallimard, such as his class, we can interpret his imprisonment as not just someone who has succumbed to the power of the state, but who is an alienated being. In fact our not knowing the circumstances of Gallimard’s imprisonment heightens the alienated individuals lack of understanding as to what his place is in society. All the actor knows is that he is on stage (being observed and examined by a shadowy audience / prison guard), that some unseen force has complete power over him (the lights coming on mysteriously), and that he is trapped by a system (his prison cell) that provides for him some creature comforts, but how exactly these comforts come into existence is unknown. Gallimard’s body language – he looks tired and sits on  a crate – coupled with his apparent sadness seems to be saying that while Gallimard has accepted his condition as subservient to the state power, he is not made happy by the circumstances. Marx describes the condition of the worker in a capitalist state as being like a machine, the “capitalist goals and questions of profit and loss are paramount, workers are bereft of their full humanity and are thought of as ‘hands’ or ‘the labour force’”, and that, “People, in a word, become things,” (Barry 157). Gallimard then is not all that different than the contents of his cell, he is no more or less distinguished from the the bathrobe which cloths him, the crate on which he sits his weary body, the hot plate which cooks his meals, or the tape recorder which provides his entertainment.

Now that we, the audience / prison guard have defined this Gallimard as nothing more than a thing, a function of the state of which we keep an eye on, we get a glimpse of how this actor’s society, as well as our own, is structured. At the base is the physical objects themselves, and though we don’t understand how these objects came into existence – after all we too as the audience / prison guard are alienated beings who take part in, “repetitive tasks in a sequence of whose nature and purpose he or she has no overall grasp,” (Barry, 157) – we understand their significance as being those objects which determine everything that rests upon this base. Marx defines this relationship as the superstructure. Gallimard is acting out this relationship as he is literally resting upon one of the objects created and provided by the state: the “wooden crate,” (Hwang, 1). Gallimard’s state is defined by and supported by the State and the objects that are produced by the State. His comfort yet also his unhappiness is, “‘determined’ (or shaped) by the nature of the economic base,” (Barry, 158).

Gallimard’s state as we have defined it as it pertains to the individual may seem bleak and dehumanizing, yet from the point of view of the State, specifically as influenced by Lenin, it is necessary for the individual, here represented in the art of a stage performance, to “become part of the organized, methodical, and unified labours of the social-democratic party,” (Barry 160). Self expression is seen as detrimental to the overall health and prosperity of the State and art itself should, “be explicitly committed to the political cause of the Left,” (Barry, 160). Notice he does not say it is committed to the cause of the individual, but to a specific political ideology. Art is a function and product of the State just like the hot plate, the bathrobe, the crate, and the tape recorder. Art’s role, such as this play, is to encourage behavior in the individual that is beneficial to the State. True, the individual may be unhappy in their emotional life, as Gallimard appears to be, but their physical needs are being met by the State and so the State is able to maintain its power to continue to provide these basic needs. Thus the stage directions are akin to the State party’s orders, they tell the individual how they should behave within the State while also providing for the individual’s basic needs.

Not all of the State’s power manifests itself through outright force. Althusser refines Marx by suggesting that there is a, “much more subtle view of how society works,” (Barry, 165). Elements of society, such as art, play just as an important role in shaping us as ideological beings as do the physical objects of a capitalist society. This function of art can be heard in how the music in the stage directions has a noticeable effect on the individual. The initial piece of music is described as a “percussive clatter,” (Hwang, 1), however when the music of Gallimard’s culture is cross-faded over the traditional Chinese music, “the difference in music now gives [her movements] a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1). Though the dancer’s culture has not changed, the way we interpret the dancer’s movement within the State is altered. What was before an undefined series of movements, the dancer’s movements now have meaning, an ideology, in relation to the music being played. The dancer takes on western, balletic qualities where before the dancer was only someone wearing “traditional Chinese garb,” (Hwang, 1) and thus the dancer is absorbed into the dominant culture’s ideology, which is “a system of representations at the heart of a given society,” (Barry, 163), in this case, Western ballet.

Also coded here is the distinction between genders in that the hegemony, Gallimard, is imposing his cultural norm upon the “other” individual. Though he is a prisoner, Gallimard is still able to exercise his power as the dominant cultural influence, a white male over a non-white female.

However, the power of hegemony Gallimard is expressing is not a free choice. Gallimard is a interpellated individual, meaning that he really only has one choice of music (art) with which to express himself. As a prisoner of the State, he’s been given a piece of music by the State (as the stage directions describe) with which he can express his culture / ideology “freely” with, or use to impose his own culture / ideology over another with. Yet Gallimard has no choice in what piece of music to express himself with nor does he even attempt to appropriate the initial Chinese music, but rather the State imposes Puccini’s Love Duet over everyone. Gallimard may think his ideology is a choice that he made or at least consciously agreed to, when, in fact, he really has no choice at all. The dancer’s movements may now have “a balletic quality,” (Hwang, 1) but that is only because that is his ideology interpreting the dance “correctly”, or to put it another way, the State is telling him how he should be interpreting the dancer. All other interpretations would then be other and “wrong” and not an accepted part of the power dynamic of his dominant culture. Gallimard’s cultural ideology is that which says one piece of music (his State’s art) is more beautiful and makes the world more beautiful (balletic) than any other. The possibility that perhaps the Chinese dancer believed the initial piece of music was more beautiful, or at least equal to the West’s never enters into Gallimard’s, let alone the stage direction’s (the State’s) consciousness.

In only a few lines of text at the beginning of the play we can see the power dynamic of a Marxist system being acted out. The power of the State is all-encompassing, like the rounded Panopticon which sees in all directions at once, it is also all-powerful in that it provides everything for the individual, whether or not they want it. In this system the individual is reduced to a product that can be moulded into whatever the State requires while at the same time allowing the individual to believe they have free choice in this process. However, the power of the State is complete and we, like Gallimard, are a prisoner to it. The State, like the play, provides the stage directions for our life and our ideology with which we then must act out.


Works Cited


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Discipline and Punish – Foucault. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus-Althusser. Accessed 07 December 2017.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly: with an afterword by the playwright. Plume, 2006.

Iliad: The Psychological Complexity of the Warrior

“As the East and South Winds fight in killer-squalls

deep in a mountain valley thrashing stands of timber,

oak and ash and cornel with bark stretched taut and hard

and they whip their long sharp branches against each other,

a deafening roar goes up, the splintered timber crashing -” (Iliad, 16: 889)


“And he forged a fallow field, broad rich plowland”

(Iliad, 18:629)


“still more Paeonian men the runner would have killed

if the swirling river had not risen, crying out in fury,

taking a man’s shape, its voice breaking out of a whirlpool:” (Iliad, 21:237)


The most common telling of the Herculean myth – part of the wider series of cult myths which were told all through ancient Mediterranean culture, perhaps as a regional / societal reflex to the civilizing force that had shifted these native Mediterranean cultures away from their more “barbaric” pasts into a somewhat more unified (possibly through trade) city culture – is found in Apollodorus of Athens’ encyclopedic retelling of the labors: Hercules kills his children and must undertake a dangerous task to make amends for his crimes.

Why would Hercules kill his own children? Apollodorus only tells us that “Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera,” (73), but what exactly is this jealousy of Heracles that fuels Hera’s rage? A possible answer is that Hera is attempting to keep Zeus’ seed from spreading and influencing the region any further. However, Hercules’ crime leads to his need for an expiation of his guilt through the undertaking of the labors. These labors have a strong civilizing force in that not only is Hercules carrying out the commands of Eurystheus, the ruler of Tiryns who is using Hercules to rid the surrounding lands of dangers to his kingdom, but by his very travels he is influencing these lands with his (and by proxy, Zeus’) presence (religion). Therefore we have a civilizing force working on behalf of a city that is successful because of his relation to Zeus. Hera is ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting her husband’s plans and is eventually reconciled (hierogamy) with Hercules after “he obtained immortality,” and “married her daughter, Hebe,” (91).

Interestingly, we are seeing the evolved remnants of some of the themes we have covered so far: overthrow and creation. In previous myths we have seen how the younger generations have overthrown their parents (Zeus, Marduk), yet Hera reverses this trend and now wishes to kill her husband’s offspring because of her jealousy. She is a more complex character because we are now getting another point of view, just as we see in the Rig Veda when the Maruts disagree with Indra (Rig Veda, 167) over who has rights to a sacrifice (power struggle). We also see the remnants of the creation myth in that Greek civilization is “creating” the Mediterranean world in its own image through Hercules’ slaying of the terrible monsters. Yet we and the contemporary audience of this myth have already moved into a world of pure mythos to explain the creation of the world because the world already exists, it’s just uncivilized and therefore needs a civilizing force to tame it, not to actually create it out of the corpses of the slain monsters (such as Marduk slaying Tiamat).

And it is this moving out of a world of pure Logos (priestly myths exclusively for a priestly class) and into a world of Mythos (a world of regular people living in cities) that leads us to Euripides’ retelling of the Herculean myth. Euripides changes one key aspect of the basic story: Hercules kills his children after he has completed his labors and gone down into to Hades.  Hercules is changed from a character who only possess great physical courage which allows him to complete the labors into someone more psychologically complex who also possess great moral courage to endure the pain he has caused. Hercules initially wants to kill himself (a reflex of his previous form), but his friend, Theseus talks him out suicide because talk of killing oneself is “the words of an ordinary man,” (Euripides 330). Hercules is not an ordinary man not just because he will not kill himself (as an ordinary man would do), or because he is the child of Zeus (semi-divine, and in that sense not at all like anyone in the audience listening to the play), but because he has the moral courage to endure this terrible pain, his “last worst labor,” (Euripides 331). Hercules must and can serve as an example not just as someone who is physically strong and can protect the city (civilization), but is also morally strong and can serve his fellow man, similar to how Gilgamesh devoted his life to serving his city after his failed journey.

This psychological complexity is important because for a warrior, such as Hercules or Gilgamesh to live in society, he has to channel his great powers into something that does not disrupt the delicate balance of living within a city (civilization). Civilization has rules and laws that must be imposed on even a semi-divine hero, like Hercules, to maintain order. The warrior’s code of self-rule is overruled by codified laws (such as Hammurabi). Though his actions have helped create civilization through the act of “All those wars I fought, those beasts I slew” (Euripides, 331) he most certainly suffers from what we would call PTSD (no longer is it Hera’s rage, but rather something mental and interior to the individual; a Freudian repression) and must figure out how to live alongside the common people / his neighbors. This is a new kind of hero who serves the city and can cope with the burdens of life by channeling (what Freud calls Sublimation) the destructive impulses (recall that Hercules is a reflex of Zeus; Zeus’s thunderbolt and Hercule’s club are similar projections of male violence) into something more constructive, and less terrifying for his neighbors.

Simply by switching the order of events – the labors as a penance for the killing of his children into the labors as the reason why he killed his children – we see the evolution of heroic myth from that of a hero clad in lion skins and swinging a giant club at anyone who gets in his way in a barbaric society and who merely possess great physical courage into the city poetry that worships someone who is morally courageous and therefore someone more recognizable and imitable by the common people rather than just the priests who ritualize the mythos of creation in the temples, someone who can rationalize a problem rather than simply apply violence to every situation and can unite people through example rather than brute force. In this way the evolution of the Herculean myth is a combining of both the characters Gilgamesh (civilized, city) and Enkidu (wild, barbaric) into one new vision of the heroic example.

The Saga of the Volsungs: Magic Writing

“She saw that something else had been cut over what lay underneath and that the runes had been falsified.” (The Saga of the Volsungs, 97)

Though the women in myth do not (usually) possess the power of violent, physical force that the men have when solving their problems, they nevertheless possess an equally useful skill: knowledge, specifically the use and understanding of the written language to manage their affairs and of society in general. Gudrun, along with Brynhild (67), and Kostbera (97) posses not only the ability to read and write the runes (the men, too are capable of this as well), but more importantly they
correctly interpret these runes.

Sigurd says of Brynhild, “Never can there be found a wiser woman in the world than you,” (71) after she teaches him the power, “mighty things,” (67) of the various runes. These runes – victory runes, wave runes (the sea), speech runes, ale, aid, healing (here a branch), and the mind – are very much like magic spells, or as we would recognize them as “legal fictions,” (Sapiens, 31) in that the ability to use these runes (words, writing) allows the clever person to manage a society.  As writing is a representation of something else, these runes carry with them the power and knowledge to control what they are representing. With the ability to, for example, control troop information in a battle (victory runes), or to heal an injured soldier (branch runes), or to educate a village, clan, or city (mind runes) so that information is not lost “Until the gods perish,” (70) people can control and manage their lives and the societies they live in even if they are made refugees, conquered, married off, or live vast distances from one another. In this way the runes (language) are representative of the power of the people who understand them and can use them wisely.

Yet while Brynhild says the runes are, “For all to use unspoiled / and unprofaned,” (70) it is a man, Vingi who profanes the runes and attempts to conceal Gudrun’s message of warning to her brothers. And while the men, such as Hogni are capable of reading the runes at the basic level, they are incapable of reading deeper into their meaning. These men are easily fooled by the false runes and it is a woman, Kostbera who, “discerned through her wisdom what the runes said,” (97). She even goes as far as to insult Hogni’s literacy, “You cannot be very skilled at reading runes,” (98) and backs up her runic interpretation by saying how she, “wondered how so wise a woman could have carved them so confusedly,” (98). For her the truth of the matter is clearly written, yet the confused nature of the runes speaks to the complexity of the political situation and ultimately Hogni does not heed the hidden warning (prophecy) and thus is doomed by Atli’s false invitation.

And it is in this complexity of interpretations, the female’s deeper insight as opposed to the male’s more literal interpretations of the runes, where we can glimpse the complexity of a political society as well as the woman’s role in preserving their society. Society is preserved through the use of language which the woman master, even if they are not always successful in forestalling a momentary disaster. And, to take my analogy a little further, the preservation of the Icelandic and Viking peoples still exists within our own magical runes of modern language. These cultures still “exist” because our runes say they existed, and while we can’t point to an actual Viking, their culture “lives” on through language.

M. Butterfly (film): Psychoanalysis: Audience as Superego

The film M. Butterfly allows the audience to actively participate in the role of the Freudian topography as a representative of the superego. An audience plays a major role in the film, not only as a character on screen but the filmmakers are counting on the audience’s reaction when confronted with a revelation counter to what we accept in normative society. In an effort to explore the audience’s preconceived biases, the filmmakers attempt to revolutionize the audience’s thinking to go beyond the current “normal” to suggest the possibility of a new, progressive “normal”. In this essay I will explore the different types of audience as presented in the film and will explore how the role of the audience as a superego shapes the characters as well as how these characters shape the audience in return.

The first example of an audience playing the role of superego, which Freud corresponds to the conscience (Barry, 97), is at the beginning of the film when Gallimard attends the embassy performance of Madame Butterfly (M Butterfly 00:05:10). In this scene Gallimard admits to having never seen the opera and is thus ignorant of its content. He is self-conscious of this fact and this exposes his alienation from the rest of the audience who is familiar with the opera. Gallimard is positioned as an outsider within his own culture, however he is not totally alien to the morals and norms of his Western European culture as we learn in the following conversation with Song when she argues against his reading of the opera. He says, “You made me see the beauty of the story. Of her death. It’s pure sacrifice… It’s very beautiful,” (M Butterfly 00:07:57) which she counters as his reading as being “… one of your favorite fantasies isn’t it? The submissive oriental woman and the cruel white man?”  (M Butterfly 00:08:36). Gallimard’s reading of the opera is assumed to be in line with that of the audience of the film, but Song is showing us that perhaps the audience’s reading is in error, perhaps we as an audience, a superego who are judging the characters, are not infallible and thus are capable of reevualating the normative pressure we impose on the characters (society).

The next example of the importance of the role of the audience is when Gallimard attends the traditional Chinese theater (M Butterfly 00:14:37). Here Gallimard is completely a foreigner since he cannot understand what the actors are saying as well as his being the only Westerner in the audience. Yet when he goes backstage he is given the opportunity to see how manufactured, how unreal, even chaotic this performance is, (M Butterfly 00:16:18). In a sense this is similar to the process of psychoanalysis when the patient – Gallimard plays a dual role as both the patient and as a proxy for the audience in this scene – begins to strip away the layers of repression (in this case the artifice of culture, here represented as the theater troupe) in an effort to expose what lies underneath. We have learned Gallimard’s reading of the opera (and thus the Chinese as a whole) is from a typical Western European point of view, and so this is his (and the audience’s) opportunity to see past these preconceived biases, to uncover these repressed and troubling biases about how we view a foreign culture and deal with them in the open.

Through the course of the film from this point forward we the audience become highly active in our role as the superego. We watch as Gallimard’s and Song’s relationship grows into what we, at first, assume will be a traditional relationship between a man and a woman, albeit across vastly different cultures. All this, however, takes place not in front of the audience of society, but tucked away in secret with only we the film audience watching events unfold. In a way we have been separated from the cultural norms of society as we undertake more in depth and private psychoanalysis of our “patients”.

While we are surprised to learn Song is biologically a man because our biases as a normative superego may initially reject this relationship possibility, yet having spent the duration of the film learning about these characters we’ve been given an opportunity to rethink our position as a normative influence on these characters. We are then presented with a choice: we could decide to continue to insist on a culturally normative relationship between a man and woman, or we have an opportunity to rethink our analysis, to have our minds changed, to engage in a revolution of norms and accept this new possibility.

And so we as a film audience who have undergone the psychoanalysis of the film where we have uncovered this repressed secret, join back up with the audience of society and we are confronted with how we will decide to judge these characters as represented in the courtroom scene, (M Butterfly 01:18:00). Here society as an audience literally judges Gallimard, especially when that audience learns he did not know the biological sex of Song, (M Butterfly 01:21:50), and thus that audience (society) finds him guilty. Gallimard deviates from the norm of French society and the rule of law insists he is to be punished for spying, in effect, on the alternative lifestyle. Yet we as an audience in the theater have been revolutionized, we were given the opportunity to know more than just the base facts in the case because we have grown with these two people and understand how this misunderstanding (either willful or from ignorance) could have ever taken place. We have seen backstage, just as Gallimard had earlier, and thus we are in conflict with French society. We now have conflicting superegos and we, too are to be judged.

This leads to the final example with an audience consisting of actual prisoners (themselves outcasts like Gallimard) who watch and judge Gallimard as he transforms on stage, (M Butterfly 01:29:27). They, like us, are captive to this transformation and not only have no power to stop the metamorphosis, but seem to accept it, a far cry from Gallimard’s previous audience of a jury in the French courtroom who cast him out. In this case one audience (French society as a superego) has been replaced with another audience (prisoners as an opposing, revolutionary superego), and while we might initially identify with the former, over the course of the film in which we are a captive audience, we wind up empathizing with Gallimard’s plight and therefore we as the superego are transformed into something wholly new.. No longer are we the normative societal force that frowns on Gallimard’s behavior, we are a different normative force who accept this transformation.

When we began the film we assumed a traditional interpretation of the characters: Gallimard is a man, Song is a woman. However, we are held captive to this traditionally accepted reading. Society (as a superego) forces us to conform to a certain standard of what constitutes a “proper” romantic relationship.

Yet why must this be so, is there no possibility of revolution in society, as there is in both China and France during the film? Can’t the superego, strict as it is as a normalizing influence be a reshaped? However, once it is reshaped, does it not just become the replacement normalizing force? Has the power now only shifted from one power structure to another? In the film the Chinese have undergone a cultural revolution where everyone is supposed to be equal, yet we see how even in this new system the new norms are enforced with strict punishments that are meted out when an individual runs afoul of them.

Who then is left to say our new, revolutionized judgment is any more authentic or legitimate than our previous biases? Are we as society’s audience also prisoners of society who judges based only on available, and often limited information? Ultimately, could this uncertainty as to the legitimacy of the authority of the superego lead to such a breakdown of an individual that they are no longer able to function in society, to which Gallimard reacts by literally killing himself, an extreme example of psychosis where the relationship with an external reality (the superego) “breaks down altogether,” (Gollapudi)?


Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press. 2002.

Gollapudi, Aparna. Principles of Literary Criticism. Accessed 30 October 2017.

M Butterfly. Dir. David Cronenberg. Warner Bros. 1993. Film.

Euripides: Heracles: Heroic vs. Moral Courage

“… Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera, and threw his own children, who had been borne to him by Megara, into the fire,” (Apollodorus, 73)

“Heracles after his marriage with Megara, daughter of Creon, had children by her. . . . Leaving his sons in Thebes, he himself went to Argos to accomplish his labors,” (Euripides, 283)

The most common telling of the Herculean myth – part of the wider series of cult myths which were told all through ancient Mediterranean culture, perhaps as a regional / societal reflex to the civilizing force that had shifted these native Mediterranean cultures away from their more “barbaric” pasts into a somewhat more unified (possibly through trade) city culture – is found in Apollodorus of Athens’ encyclopedic retelling of the labors: Hercules kills his children and must undertake a dangerous task to make amends for his crimes.

Why would Hercules kill his own children? Apollodorus only tells us that “Heracles was struck by madness through the jealousy of Hera,” (73), but what exactly is this jealousy of Heracles that fuels Hera’s rage? A possible answer is that Hera is attempting to keep Zeus’ seed from spreading and influencing the region any further. However, Hercules’ crime leads to his need for an expiation of his guilt through the undertaking of the labors. These labors have a strong civilizing force in that not only is Hercules carrying out the commands of Eurystheus, the ruler of Tiryns who is using Hercules to rid the surrounding lands of dangers to his kingdom, but by his very travels he is influencing these lands with his (and by proxy, Zeus’) presence (religion). Therefore we have a civilizing force working on behalf of a city that is successful because of his relation to Zeus. Hera is ultimately unsuccessful in thwarting her husband’s plans and is eventually reconciled (hierogamy) with Hercules after “he obtained immortality,” and “married her daughter, Hebe,” (91).

Interestingly, we are seeing the evolved remnants of some of the themes we have covered so far: overthrow and creation. In previous myths we have seen how the younger generations have overthrown their parents (Zeus, Marduk), yet Hera reverses this trend and now wishes to kill her husband’s offspring because of her jealousy. She is a more complex character because we are now getting another point of view, just as we see in the Rig Veda when the Maruts disagree with Indra (Rig Veda, 167) over who has rights to a sacrifice (power struggle). We also see the remnants of the creation myth in that Greek civilization is “creating” the Mediterranean world in its own image through Hercules’ slaying of the terrible monsters. Yet we and the contemporary audience of this myth have already moved into a world of pure mythos to explain the creation of the world because the world already exists, it’s just uncivilized and therefore needs a civilizing force to tame it, not to actually create it out of the corpses of the slain monsters (such as Marduk slaying Tiamat).

And it is this moving out of a world of pure Logos (priestly myths exclusively for a priestly class) and into a world of Mythos (a world of regular people living in cities) that leads us to Euripides’ retelling of the Herculean myth. Euripides changes one key aspect of the basic story: Hercules kills his children after he has completed his labors and gone down into to Hades.  Hercules is changed from a character who only possess great physical courage which allows him to complete the labors into someone more psychologically complex who also possess great moral courage to endure the pain he has caused. Hercules initially wants to kill himself (a reflex of his previous form), but his friend, Theseus talks him out suicide because talk of killing oneself is “the words of an ordinary man,” (Euripides 330). Hercules is not an ordinary man not just because he will not kill himself (as an ordinary man would do), or because he is the child of Zeus (semi-divine, and in that sense not at all like anyone in the audience listening to the play), but because he has the moral courage to endure this terrible pain, his “last worst labor,” (Euripides 331). Hercules must and can serve as an example not just as someone who is physically strong and can protect the city (civilization), but is also morally strong and can serve his fellow man, similar to how Gilgamesh devoted his life to serving his city after his failed journey.

This psychological complexity is important because for a warrior, such as Hercules or Gilgamesh to live in society, he has to channel his great powers into something that does not disrupt the delicate balance of living within a city (civilization). Civilization has rules and laws that must be imposed on even a semi-divine hero, like Hercules, to maintain order. The warrior’s code of self-rule is overruled by codified laws (such as Hammurabi). Though his actions have helped create civilization through the act of “All those wars I fought, those beasts I slew” (Euripides, 331) he most certainly suffers from what we would call PTSD (no longer is it Hera’s rage, but rather something mental and interior to the individual; a Freudian repression) and must figure out how to live alongside the common people / his neighbors. This is a new kind of hero who serves the city and can cope with the burdens of life by channeling (what Freud calls Sublimation) the destructive impulses (recall that Hercules is a reflex of Zeus; Zeus’s thunderbolt and Hercule’s club are similar projections of male violence) into something more constructive, and less terrifying for his neighbors.

Simply by switching the order of events – the labors as a penance for the killing of his children into the labors as the reason why he killed his children – we see the evolution of heroic myth from that of a hero clad in lion skins and swinging a giant club at anyone who gets in his way in a barbaric society and who merely possess great physical courage into the city poetry that worships someone who is morally courageous and therefore someone more recognizable and imitable by the common people rather than just the priests who ritualize the mythos of creation in the temples, someone who can rationalize a problem rather than simply apply violence to every situation and can unite people through example rather than brute force. In this way the evolution of the Herculean myth is a combining of both the characters Gilgamesh (civilized, city) and Enkidu (wild, barbaric) into one new vision of the heroic example.

The Rig Veda: Conquest over Tiamat

“He divided the monstrous shape and created marvels (from it).

He sliced her in half like a fish for drying:

Half of her he put up to the roof of the sky,

Drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.

Her waters he arranged so that they could not escape.” (The Epic of Creation, 255)

The Mother-Goddess Tiamat is serving multiple purposes here. FIrst (though in no particular order), she is a metonymy for the ocean, an emanation / pathogenesis, “And maker Tiamat, who bore them all,” (233) of life, which Marduk cuts in half (like Moses will later in another Semitic text, the Hebrew Bible), but she is also a source of fertility / nourishment (a fish) from which Marduk will create the world (cosmogony) from.

Second, she is part of the older generation which Marduk battles against (theomachy) and succeeds in overthrowing and securing his position of power when he takes the Tablet of Destinies, “Wrested from him the Tablet of Destinies,” (254) which cements his fate as the supreme ruler (Sky-God) and establishes his pattern for celestial hierophany (the heavenly sacred order).

This overthrow is also significant because since Marduk is male and Tiamat is female we have a fiction (mythos) explaining how the patriarchy has wrestled power away from the matriarchy. Tiamat, like the Ginnungagap, is a mixture of two forms. Here this mixture is of the waters, the fresh (as represented by the progenitor God Apsu) and the salt waters. Fertile Tiamat had been the goddess who the successive gods, such as Marduk, emanated from (like Aditi is in the Rig Veda), but now Marduk in his bid for power seeks to gain this power of creation for himself and whom the other gods have given him commission to do so, “We hereby give you sovereignty over all of the whole universe,” (250) and, “They gave him an unfaceable weapon [the winds] to crush the foe,” (250). Tiamat’s mysterious female powers of creation (the fertile waters) are now under Marduk’s (a male’s) complete control, “LUGAL-DIMMER-ANKIA is his name. Trust in him!” (259). Marduk, the Bull-Calf of the Sun is the new, masculine Warrior-Sky-God.

One other point to address is that, like Zeus later, Marduk, a male, has taken on the previously feminine role of birth and creation. The second generation of Gods emanated from Tiamat, but now the world and all subsequent generations can be brought into existence through the violent effort of the dominant male. What had once been a mysterious emanation that can’t be easily explained, can now quantified through Marduk’s actions with Taimat’s corpse.

Third we have the cosmogony where after having killed off the old generation (overthrow), the new world can be created according to Marduk’s plan. Marduk, now the God-Sky-King creates the world through the corpse of the Proto-Godess, Tiamat. And from this cosmogony, man – a slave race – is created from the blood of Qingu (blood anthropogony), “He created mankind from his blood,” (261).

All-in-all, this myth justifies Marduk’s violence. Tiamat originally was willing to show compassion (a female trait), “Even though their ways are grievous, we should bear it patiently,” (234) towards the younger generation for causing trouble and for killing the progenitor god, Apsu. Yet Marduk does not need compassion, he is a violent male, yet he still has to justify his violent actions and this mythos explains / justifies how and why Marduk slew Tiamat to create the world we now (as Babylonians, anyway) are slaves in and worshipers of the Sky-God, Marduk.

A Thousand Years of Forbidden Knowledge

In Dr. Faustus, Lucifer entertains with “some pastime” (Marlowe A2.3: 99) as he parades the various sins of hell in their corporeal forms before their host, Faustus. Lucifer is giving a performance, in effect telling the story of how he, Lucifer with his crew believe they will succeed in corrupting humanity – or at least in corrupting Faustus. In this essay I wish to take on the role of Lucifer and examine seven texts which explore the idea of forbidden knowledge as it appears in its various forms over a thousand years of English literature from the Old to the Modern period.



“For fifty winters,” (Beowulf 129) Beowulf ruled his people well yet what could have caused it all to go so wrong? Early in the tale we learn of Hengest’s vengeance when “the flashing sword” (Beowulf 102) is placed in his lap. Though peace had persisted through winter, now that it was spring and his people were no longer required to keep the peace, he sought his vengeance. Hengest’s revenge is a clue as to why a dragon has begun to terrorize Beowulf’s people. This dragon had “for three hundred winters,” (Beowulf 131) guarded a treasure which remained buried in a barrow far from man, yet because of a slave who was “escaping from men’s anger,” (Beowulf 130) happened to stumble upon this treasure and carry it off into the world caused the dragon’s vengeance was loosed upon Beowulf’s kingdom.

Yet what is this treasure and why was it buried? The contents are no doubt of great earthly wealth, but it’s doing little good just buried in the ground. What we learn of this treasure is that it had been deliberately buried by someone who was the last of his people, perhaps an ancient king like Beowulf and Hrothgar since he is described as “the protector of rings” (Beowulf 130). Yet like Beowulf who also has no heir, this protector of rings does not use his wealth to forge any new alliances and thus enrich his fellow man as was custom, instead he greedily hides it away from man where it can do no good. In effect the treasure becomes symbolic of greed itself and the dragon becomes the consuming consequences of pursuing this greed; the treasure is literally cursed. Hidden away this treasure is a forbidden knowledge best left untouched, yet Beowulf, perhaps wishing to provide for his people financially since he has no heir to provide them with, but more importantly for the fame it might bestow our epic hero, seeks the treasure, a knowledge of sorts, that is not his in hopes of securing a prosperous future.

And perhaps if Beowulf had acted more like Hrothgar (who also had no heir) and allowed for a champion to slay this dragon then maybe events would have turned out better. However, “the giver of gold [Beowulf] disdained / to track the dragon with a troop / of warlike men,” (Beowulf 133) because his own pride (ofermod) has convinced him that only he is capable of the feat (Beowulf 137). Like the man who buried his treasure in the earth and does not share his wealth, Beowulf does not allow for his own people to share in the chance at glory. Glory, the ultimate goal for the epic hero, must be all his just as wealth is the ultimate goal for a man who buries his riches in a barrow.

Beowulf thus is ultimately consumed by the dragon’s fire and dies. His obsession with the cursed treasure, a quest for what amounts to obtaining a forbidden knowledge, coupled with his pride, a theme we will see repeated again in Milton, is his ultimate undoing.



The Breton lai of Milun not only explores instances of secrets and forbidden knowledge, but it also carries over the theme of genealogy and an heir from Beowulf. Milun is a story about the family, specifically the legitimacy of family and at this point in English literature we see the shift in identity towards the family and away from Beowulf’s clans, and how the women now, not the men, are central to this new identity even though we have not yet reached the point where we actually learn these women’s names.

Central to the story is our heroine’s pregnancy with the “fine” knight Milun. Fearful that she “would be severely punished: tortured, or sold as a slave,” (Marie 98) she must hide her condition less she forfeit “her honour and good name,” (Marie 98). Her father has plans for her to be betrothed to “a very wealthy man from the region,” (Marie 98) and if he were to find out what his daughter has been doing in the bedchamber near her garden then nobody would have her. THe irony being that as she fears becoming a slave, she is being bought and sold as a slave.

Her insistence on attracting Milun and exploring her sexual passions with him places her in an almost impossible situation. She cries that she “never realized that things would turn out this way,” (Marie 99) apparently because nobody told her of the consequences of sexual intercourse. Yet her situation is not entirely impossible either. Her’s is a true love, unlike that with her betrothal to the nobleman, and as we know from the genre of romance, true love will prevail even if it takes awhile and some scheming to see it through.

The final scheme in the lai involves murder. Milun and his (newly reconciled) son plan how to reunite the family and the son suggests that “I shall kill her husband and marry her to you,” (Marie 103). And had the lai not followed the conventions of the genre and the son really had carried out the murder we would not have had a nice family reconciliation but rather perhaps the terrible consequences of tasting the forbidden knowledge of murder. Yet divine providence stepped in and we learn that “[H]er husband was dead,” (Marie 104). True love won out and the nobleman whom she had been married to just conveniently dies. In fact her husband dies because he was ignorant to the forbidden knowledge of her (lack of) virginity. As we will explore in A Journal of the Plague Year when hundreds of thousands die to the ignorance of what was causing the plague, so too does this nobleman pay the price for this hidden and forbidden knowledge.

Thankfully for the son, he does not have to taste the forbidden fruit of murder and the family is affirmed in love and the legitimacy of the son is secure.


The Miller’s Tale

Sexual intercourse with a woman who (currently) belongs to another is a theme explored not just in Marie de France, but also in Chaucer. Yet while our genre remains that of love, unlike Milun which is a romance, here Chaucer writes a fabliaux, a dirty story focusing more on the genitals than it does the heart. And here too we explore the consequences of forbidden knowledge, only this time with much more levity and mirth than in Beowulf of Milun.

Our first clue as to what Chaucer is up to is in the Miller’s prologue when the Miller says to the Reve, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold,” (Chaucer 3152). Right away we know we are going to be in for a tale about cheating wives and all the trouble that can bring. This contrasts with Milun in that Marie de France writes tales for the court about the importance and bonding of family and ennobled love, whereas Chaucer, speaking as the drunken Miller to the sickly Reve, is basically giving his 14th century audience the equivalent of porn.

One thing to keep in mind here however, Chaucer isn’t completely straying out of the genre because line in Milun the Miller’s Tale also focuses on a young woman married to an older man who doesn’t deserve her. Yet whereas the heroine in Milun was at least betrothed to someone she shared the same class with, the old and uneducated carpenter, “He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude,” (Chaucer 3227), is here mismatched to his 18 year old wife and he is incredibly jealous, “And demed hymself been lik a cokewold,” (Chaucer 3226). And so this mismatch and jealousy is the opportunity for someone like the learned, youthful, and horny scholar, Nicholas to take advantage of this carpenter so that he can sleep with the young wife: “‘A clerk hadde litherly biset his whyle, / But if he koude a carpenter bigyle,” (Chaucer 3299).

Nicholas’ plan preys on the carpenter’s ignorance and uses his “forbidden knowledge” as power to get what he wants because he knows it will impress the old man; “This man is falle, with his astromye,” and the carpenter believes, “Men sholde nat knowe of Goddes pryvetee,” (Chaucer 3454) and so is convinced that the knowledge Nicholas has about a second “Noes flood,” (Chaucer 3518) is true and imminent and goes along with the outrageous plan to hang bathtubs from the rafters, “Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,” (Chaucer 3612).

In the end the carpenter is completely humiliated, “That he was holde wood in al the toun;” (Chaucer 3846) and, “Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,” (Chaucer 3850). The carpenter had bought into the supposed authority of the the young clerk, Nicholas and because he was so blinded with jealousy that anyone with even the remotest ability and education (power) was able to take advantage of him. The carpenter’s desire to trust in a forbidden knowledge, even though he said man shouldn’t pry into the mind of God, turned out to be his undoing.

Yet how was it exactly that Nicholas was able to pry into the mind of God, or at least appear to posses such knowledge? Perhaps in Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus is a clue.


Doctor Faustus

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas is a literate man; he can write and read, and so he has access to knowledge that someone like the carpenter does not have. In short learning has moved on from being an oral tradition, such as in Beowulf, or Marie de France reading her lais to a baronial court or the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales passing the time with each other telling their various stories, and can now be found written down in a book whose barrier to entry is the ability to read. This literacy, coupled with more and more people moving to the cities to find work, work that required an education, institutions arose to train young people, like Nicholas, in the required curriculum of the day. And so no longer was the bible the only book that contained what you needed to get along in the world. The bible may contain the providential word of God, but it could not teach you much about law, logic, or how to be a doctor. Yet just as conservative religion had grown out of the teachings found in the bible, an orthodox curriculum of the new secular knowledge, a new providence, had arisen.

But what exactly was in these books? According to Faustus, “O, what a world of profit and delight, / Of power, of honour, of omnipotence / Is promised to the studious artisan!” (Marlowe A1.1:55) can be found in books, but not just any books, but rather “necromantic books,” (Marlowe A1.1:53), and anything containing not the boring orthodoxy of the standard curriculum but which, “try thy brains to gain a deity,” (Marlowe A1.1:65). Faustus is not interested in being a clerk, he wants to be a 16th century Oppenheimer and unlock the mysteries of the universe and he is willing to dig, like Beowulf looking for a dragon’s horde, to find, “all the wealth that our forefathers hid / Within the massy entrails of the earth,” (Marlowe A1.1:148).

Not surprisingly this quest for knowledge has its consequences in that Faustus eventually must relinquish his immortal soul to Lucifer, but it also reveals a shift in literature from the medieval and into a (early) modern world of science and rationalism. In one scene Faustus tells Lucifer that he believes, “hell’s a fable,” but to which Lucifer replies, “Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind,” (Marlowe A2.1:127). This focus on experience is important because it contrasts with a world view consisting of authority coming from the revealed word of God. God’s authority is being challenged by the possibility of the forbidden knowledge of experience in the hopes of gaining a power that could perhaps make oneself a God. But this choice between authority and experience also gives rise to doubt because now what is someone to believe? Who really has authority? Our author, Marlowe, was born a generation after Martin Luther challenged the church’s authority and so now people have the freedom to choose between letting the church tell them how to find salvation or to try and figure it out for themselves. Yet what are the real consequences to all this freedom?


Paradise Lost

While we do not learn of what becomes of Faustus after Marlowe’s Lucifer comes to collect his soul, we might imagine it could be something similar to what Milton’s Lucifer experiences once he’s kicked out of heaven; “look on me, / Me who have touched and tasted,” (Milton IX:687) Satan says to Eve as he attempts to seduce her into eating the forbidden fruit. And from Eve’s pre-fall point of view, Satan seems to be making a convincing argument, “Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned / With reason, to her seeing, and with truth,” (Milton IX:737).

But just as Faustus vacillates with doubt and wonders if it’s not too late to repent, “‘Tis thou hast damned distressed Faustus’ soul. / Is’t not too late?” (Marlowe A2.3:75), Milton’s Satan soliloquizes his decision to rebel against God. Satan reflects that “nor was his service hard,” (Milton IV:45) so then why did he ever decide to rebel? Basically, Satan is jealous of the Son of God, “with envy against the Son of God, that day / Honoured by his great father, and proclaimed / Messiah king anointed,” (Milton V:662) because Satan is no longer the most important angel in heaven and must be subordinate to someone else and be subject to “new laws thou seest imposed; / New laws from him who reigns,” (Milton V:679). From Satan’s point of view God is a tyrant and so like a child who first discovers they can say “no” when they don’t want to do something, he rebels. He acts like the drunken Miller from Chaucer who speaks out of turn and upsets the hierarchy.

This decision to rebel raises an important question as to why Satan, and later Eve and Adam, is free to even make such a choice in the first place. Wouldn’t God have saved everyone a whole lot of time and trouble had he not given anybody the freedom, “free to fall,” (Milton III:99), to make such terrible decisions? Herein lies the paradox of the freedom we have to either be freely obedient to God’s rule and his hierarchy, or to use our Godlike freedom to be like Faustus so that we too “shall be as gods,” (Milton IX:708). What God wants is not robots who “had served necessity, / Not me,” (Milton III:110) but beings who are obedient because they also understand that only God can truly handle ultimate freedom. By breaking our obedience to God we overreach and attempt to gain the knowledge that God has, a knowledge which has literally been forbidden to us by God.

And the consequences of this overreach is dire. In book XI, Milton describes the angel Michael’s prophecy of humanity’s fate in great detail, and pretty much all of it is graphic and tragic, “A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid / Numbers of all diseased,” (Milton XI:479). Our overreach of knowledge and disobedience leads to nothing but suffering, a theme we see explored in great detail in Daniel DeFoe’s novel about the Great Plague of London in 1665.


A Journal of the Plague Year

While Adam and Eve know perfectly well why they had been banished from Eden and have had the consequences their offspring will endure due to their decision to rebel against God literally revealed to them, the people of London in 1665 have no such clear knowledge. As we have explored above, humanity has the freedom to choose whose authority he wishes to serve: he can rely on the revealed word of God, or he can look elsewhere, to books and experience to make sense of the world. Yet what good can either of these do in a world that, “for many People that had the Plague upon them, knew nothing of it; till the inward Gangreen had affected their Vitals and they dy’d in a few Moments,” (Defoe 77). Worse still were those who supposedly possessed the authority of God who instead of offering hope, “those Ministers, in their Sermons, rather sunk, than lifted up the Hearts of their Hearers,” (Defoe 26). All is in confusion, society has broken down and nobody possesses the knowledge to defend themselves from death.

And so where do people turn? Some turn to looting (Defoe 85), some to homeopathic remedy, “his Wife’s Remedy was washing her Head in Vinegar,” (Defoe 87), or succumbing outright to despair, “for People that were Infected, and near their End, and delirious also, would run to those Pits wrapped in Blankets, or Rugs, and throw themselves in,” (Defoe 59). In effect all knowledge has been cursed, like a dragon’s horde, and it leads to a systematic collapse of civilization. The very top of man’s society, the wealthy, abandon the poor which leads to commerce and trade either being taken over by criminals and swindlers (Defoe 27-28) or just falling apart entirely (Defoe 141), which leads to the political and religious authorities deteriorating (Defoe 226). Marie de France wrote of God’s Providence guiding the family towards reunion and a restoration of ennobled civilization (Milun), but in the modern world there only seems to be tricksters like Chaucer’s Nicolas taking advantage of a confused situation.

Thus it would seem civilization is doomed and there is nothing man can do to improve his standing in a world where he is free to indulge in any and all knowledge and where there seems to be no real authority. However, just as Adam and Eve put Eden behind them, “The world was all before them,” (Milton XII:646), perhaps then it might be possible to make the best of a terrible situation to rebuild civilization.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

In our previous examples the pursuit of forbidden knowledge has only led to despair; Beowulf, Milun’s lover, Chaucer’s carpenter, Dr. Faustus, Milton’s Lucifer and Eve, and Defoe’s London society have all suffered the consequences of reaching beyond their limitations. Yet is the pursuit of “forbidden knowledge” and a desire for freedom only a path leading towards destruction? When we think back to the paradox Milton explores in Paradise Lost where real freedom is actually in obedience to God and rebelling against it leads to destruction, perhaps we can look to Olaudah Equiano’s life as a slave as a counter-example to how he used his pursuit of freedom and knowledge to better himself and society.

A religious allusion to Jesus turning water into wine so that the masses could hear the word of God (revelation) cannot be understated when Equiano meets up again with Dr Irving and was then “daily employed in reducing old Neptune’s dominions by purifying the briny element and making it fresh,” (Equiano 172). This process of turning undrinkable seawater into fresh, life-giving water contrasts with Faustus’ greed for power by use of “magic, magic that hath ravished me,” (Marlowe A1.1:112), and also contrasts with Defoe’s London society who wrongly thought so many were dying of the plague because, “the Calamity was spread by Infection, that is to say, by some certain Steams, or Fumes,” (Defoe 73). Yet Equiano seemed to have tapped into a forbidden knowledge that previously could have been thought of as a sort of alchemy, a knowledge he has perhaps gained through some of the very same books (Equiano 68) Faustus and Chaucer’s Nicholas used in their greedy and manipulative abuse of power.

Equiano also seemingly contrasts with our previous examples in his quest for freedom. Milton has taught us freedom is obedience to God and obedience will keep our freedom in check lest we try to overreach and become like God, but Equiano experiences almost constant mistreatment at the hands of those he’s supposed to be obedient to: his owners. Yet Equiano is not seeking freedom from God’s rule, but from the tyranny of men. Equiano writes, “Christ is my pilot wise, my compass is his word,” (Equiano 199) because not only is God a literal guide in the scientific and secular sense where Equiano must navigate his way on a ship, but also in the spiritual sense of his own obedience to God in guiding him through a chaos, much like the one Lucifer travels through (Milton II:910), so that He will, “save me in the trying hour,” (Equiano 199). Like Lucifer, Equiano rebels, but what he rebels against is an actual injustice, not against a just obedience that wasn’t really that hard anyway (Milton IV:45). Even Equiano’s pride contrasts with Milton’s Lucifer in that he posses a self-worth, but not an overabundance that blinds him into believing he can become like God.

Equiano then makes for a fitting conclusion to our exploration of forbidden knowledge in that he uses his reason to seek only that which can improve him and his fellow man, but does not go beyond that. He understands his limitations but is perfectly happy with such restrictions. He has “put [his] ears to,” (Equiano 68) forbidden knowledge, but like the books that remained silent when he was illiterate, has been practical in his application of what knowledge he eventually learns through his experiences

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano : Different but the Same

what advantages do not a refined people possess over those who are rude and uncultivated?” (45)

The first image we get of Olaudah Equiano is of his actual portrait on the cover and title page. Here he looks perfectly refined in the western sense with his lace scarf, expensive red jacket and the Bible open to the Book of Acts. He embodies, literally, the idea that just because he is black he is nevertheless no less of a dignified human than a white man, “Surely the minds of the Spaniards did not change with their complexions!” (45). Our first impression of him is of an assimilated black man into western civilization, and so we must put our ear to his book “in hopes it would answer [us],” (68) so that we might learn who this black man wearing the clothes of a white man is.

In the first chapter of his narrative we learn exactly just how civilized, arguably more civilized, this black man is to that of the white men who enslave him. When compared to Defoe’s plague infested Londoners, Equiano’s people seem more advanced as well. “Sometimes we are visited by locusts,” (38) and when a famine follows his people respond as a social collective (38) unlike the wealthy of London who run off into hiding at the first sign of inconvenience from the Plague. In fact by the nature of his people’s cleanliness, “Those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves,” (42) and their architecture which was designed to “keep off the different insects,” (36), they are better protected from disease than the “more advanced” people who enslave them. Practical experience does more for a “simple” people living in the African interior than all the libraries of knowledge in England.

Equiano goes into great detail as to the advanced level of civilization his native people possess. They engage in trade with the Oye-Eboe who bring them “arms, gun-powder, hats, beads, and dried fish” (37). They are familiar with science, “We compute the year from the day which the sun crosses the line,” (40-41). His people comport themselves respectfully, “we were totally unaccustomed with swearing,” (41). They are knowledgeable of medicine in that they “practiced bleeding by cupping, and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons,” (42). In other words they are self sufficient and capable of managing plague, famine, and war, quite unlike Defoe’s terrified and helpless Londoners.

A key to their success is in their community and the norm of helping their neighbors, “The whole neighborhood afford their unanimous assistance in building [houses], and, in return, receive and expect no other recompense than a feast,” (36). This is a far cry from the white men who, as we learn later in the narrative take advantage of Equiano and outright steal from him for their own gain, or like in Defoe who just lock up their neighbors to save themselves when the plague breaks out.

Equiano is so cultured and civilized that upon first meeting these white men he asks “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?” (55). There is great irony in a slave questioning the very humanity of a race of people who sees him as merely a piece of ignorant property.

From this point on he must, in effect, build a bridge between his own civilization and identity to that of his captors. He must prove his worth by becoming more like his captors in appearance so that they might pause long enough to hear his story. Of course he has the ability to tell his story because he possesses the financial means to do so. Like Defoe’s wealthy Londoners who are able to save themselves and pass on their genes, Equiano is also able to protect his identity and pass it on to later generations, quite unlike the millions of less fortunate Africans whose stories were never told. And perhaps in this one aspect Western civilization has the advantage over “those who are rude and uncultivated,” (45) in its ability to pass down not just the practical technical knowledge of staying alive, but because they have the ability “to keep their great men when they died,” (63).

Paradise Lost : God’s adversary?

Meanwhile the adversary of God and man,’ (Book II, 629)

The word “adversary” (2:629) is carrying a lot of thematic weight in the poem. Initially, “adversary” can be defined in its classic sense, that of the traditional, epic antagonist, such as Grendel, or the Dragon of the horde, or even in the romantic sense of the jealous husband who locks up his young and pretty wife. Milton is drawing on this traditional view of the word “adversary” to build the character of Satan up in the same tradition as the old epics and romances so that the character will be instantly recognizable, and sympathetic.

An example of “adversary” in the classic definition can be seen in such lines as “That glory never shall his wrath or might / Extort from me.” (1:110) where we witness Satan’s defiance against his enemy, God. We know this will be a good fight, and we also know that any great hero has to have a foe worthy of his attention because in vanquishing such a mighty foe is for the greatest of all glory and eventual reward, “The world shall burn, and from her ashes spring / New heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell,” (3:334).

Another example of Milton’s use of “adversary” comes in the later definition we have explored in the genre of the romance. Satan, in his temptation of youthful and naive Eve, prays on her innocence as well has her vanity to capture her, “Taste this, and be henceforth among the gods / Thyself a goddess,” (5:77). Satan is like the jealous old husband of Chaucer who against all odds manages to score a wife who is out of his accepted social position – in other words, he is grasping for more than he is has been allowed by society, or in this case, God.

This then leads us into the use of the word “adversary” as playing directly into how the character of Satan sees himself. Satan defines his worth through this adversarial relationship with God, his pride blinds him into thinking he is equal enough to actually be an “adversary” of God. Yet we know he is lacking all the facts, specifically God’s existence outside of all time, “Wherein past, present, future he beholds,” (3:78) and thus is unaware of the inevitable outcome. Satan is unaware just how doomed he is since God has already seen Satan’s failure, but he does not have this knowledge and so we watch as he fights a battle he cannot win.

All this helps build up a character we are familiar with from the tradition of literature (from epic to romance and the medieval) which creates an antagonist who is powerful enough to be dangerous (and also entertaining to read about), but relatable enough through his flaws so that we can empathize with just how dangerous Satan can be in our own lives. Milton has personified evil and humanized it, he is showing us how evil is ultimately a human adversary which is a part of our very nature. Evil is transformed from an ambiguous, or monstrous concept outside of ourselves into something entirely human capable of great evil within ourselves.

Eliot and Baraka: Identity and Disenfranchisement

While T.S. Eliot and Amiri Baraka have seemingly opposing philosophies concerning the role of the poet’s identity in art, their work shares similar cultural realities; both attempt to address the inequality of the modern world, specifically as it relates to the identity of marginalized members of society.

In 1919, T.S. Eliot explained in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poet is distinct from the poetry they are writing and that poetry “… is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” (Eliot 42). Eliot’s view of the individual’s identity can hardly be surprising in the context of when this essay was written so soon after the end of WW1. Mechanized advancements in warfare, such as the airplane and long-range artillery, had depersonalized the value of human life by turning the battlefield into a meatgrinder where the value of the individual is little more than a stain upon the vastness of an apocalyptic wasteland where death comes at any moment from an entrenched and unseen enemy.

Eliot’s depersonalization and loss of identity is reflected in his poem “Preludes” where he describes the modern city not through the individual people who inhabit it, but through the stains left behind from these collective masses. His lines, “The burnt out ends of smoky days”, “The grimy scraps”, and “… faint stale smells of beer” (Kalaidjian 34) build up an image of humanity’s waste to allude to the idea of humanity as waste.

Eliot also argues that the role of the poet in creating art is a process of “continual surrender of himself,” (Eliot 39). Here he is explaining that the artist is part of a tradition, the classical Western Tradition, that is greater than himself and that this tradition is totally inescapable. Eliot is arguing that the artist writes “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country,” (Eliot 37). Eliot’s definition of the artist is not as a unique individual, but is someone who is part of a process of the past and the present. Eliot’s artist has no individual identity but whose “mature” mind is a catalyst (“a filament of platinum,“) (Eliot 39) that causes a chemical reaction between two previously existing gasses to form a new substance but that ultimately destroys the catalyst. Eliot uses as analogy the impersonal advances of science and technology to define the identity of the artist.  

Nearly fifty years after Eliot’s essay, the poet Amiri Baraka will stand at the front lines of the Civil Rights movement and use his poetry as a force demanding that the individual – specifically the African American – be recognized and taken seriously as a part of American (Western) society. Baraka is part of a generation who no longer is willing to accept an identity of the African American as being “Invisible”, as Ralph Ellison uses the term in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”. Baraka is not willing to be a filament subsumed by the white world, rather he will use art violently against a “static reality,” (Reilly 168).

Amiri Baraka seems to stand in sharp contrast to Eliot in that he is an active (even violent) agent of protest against the classical Western Tradition in order to “free himself, and his people,” (Reilly 15) as he, still known as LeRoi Jones at the time, stated in his 1966 interview with Stewart Smith and Peter Thon when asked about what happens to “a creative person when you start to give yourself over entirely to protest activities,” (Reilly 15).

In “Poem for Black Hearts”, which eulogizes Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, Baraka (Jones) uses his poem as a call for black men to literally avenge Malcolm X’s death, “Malcolm’s assassination demands retribution from black men against white men,” (Watts 112). It should be noticed, however that Baraka is saying white men will call black men “faggots” if black men do not fight back, a call to action which seeks to move discrimination off onto another marginalized group.

“Poem for Black Hearts” further contrasts to Eliot in that Baraka is not only an active agent for (violent) change, but he is breaking from the tradition and forms Eliot believes the artist is beholden to. Baraka is writing in free verse, of which Eliot said “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job” (Perloff) because Baraka is, in effect using new methods to express his refusal to be lumped in with the “static” hegemony of the Western Tradition. The lines of Baraka’s poem swell in length as they continue down the page and as they become more impassioned and more insistent that action be taken, unlike “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” where Eliot’s narrator waffles with the same indecision as Hamlet and ultimately just grows “old” with “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” (Eliot 15). Where Eliot uses ironic rhymes, “tool” and “Fool”, “meticulous” and “ridiculous”, “use” and “obtuse” to describe the sad state of the narrator, Baraka uses the phrases “stupid animal” and “dumb white man” (Watts 111) to describe whom he is fighting with no lack of certainty.

Yet despite these seemingly ungulfable differences, both poets are exploring the everyday life of the disenfranchised in a modern world which has taken on the qualities of a prison. For example, Baraka writes in “KA ‘BA” that black people “sprawl in grey chains,” (Kalaidjian 294) while in Eliot’s “Preludes” the state of modern man is like “Women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots,” (Kalaidjian 36). Even Prufrock’s waffling can be seen expressed in the confused dual-consciousness Baraka alludes to in “Dope” where Baraka is both preacher and slave parishioner, drug addict and the hustling dealer. Prufrock himself lives under a sky that is “Like a patient etherised upon a table,” (Eliot 11) which shares the themes of society and religion as being like a drug (dope) sedating us.

Though Eliot may hold his definition of the Western Tradition in highest regard, he is not saying poetry is only a product of this ancient tradition. Eliot writes, “The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations,” (Eliot 38). These undistinguished reputations which the poet must take into consideration when creating art can include everything from pop-culture to black activists (for they lie outside the hegemony) and so he is saying it is vital to have a finger on the pulse of the times.

For Eliot the state of the modern man is in doubt, as we have seen with Prufrock. War has ravaged the nations whose culture make up the majority of the Western Tradition and so man is described by Eliot in “Gerontion” as being “A dull head among windy spaces,” (Eliot 31) who is in debt to the foreign banks (here described with the racist stereotype of “the jew”, which is not even given the dignity of capitalization, and draws a racist scapegoat comparison with Baraka’s use of the derogatory “faggot”), who owns a goat that “coughs”, and whose maid “Sneezes”. Everyone is sick and it is a “dry month” and they are “waiting for rain”. There is no relief and our narrator is so weakened and ineffectual he has lost his senses, his “sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch,” (Eliot 33). All is uncertain, the old symbols are twisted, Christ is no longer a lamb but now comes as “the tiger,” (Eliot 31).

Baraka, too is reacting to the state of the world as he sees it. In “Square Business” he writes about the hegemony,

… They own each

Other. They own

my mother. They own

and own, go on, what else

is theirs?

Time. Time is. (Watts 111)

Baraka is showing us how greed motivated society is while alluding to how his own people have been and still are owned by a structure with so much power that it owns time itself. This section of the poem demonstrates this through rhymes that are enjambed into the next line, as if those in power are reaching down into the next line to take as much as they can there, too. When Baraka writes of his own people, they “kill each other” and live “on a dirty courtyard,” (Kalaidjian 293), which could perhaps be the same courtyard from Eliot’s “Preludes” where,

a gusty shower wraps

The grimy scraps

Of withered leaves about your feet

And newspapers from vacant lots; (Kalaidjian 34)

Eliot gives us a society that is old and sick, and Baraka gives us one that continues to enslave the people. Both Eliot’s people and Baraka’s are faceless, and we only see pieces of them, “the yellow soles of feet” (Eliot 34), (emphasis on the pun with soles and souls), or “full of masks and dances and swelling chants / with african eyes, and noses, and arms,” (Kalaidjian 294). In both examples the individual is depersonalized into a modern art jumble of body parts or is hidden behind a mask whose greater spiritual meaning we can’t fathom or has been utterly degraded.

Yet as Eliot’s generation grew out of the violence of WW1 to inform his mechanized worldview of the depersonalized individual full of Hamlet’s uncertainty, Baraka turns the violence right back around and uses it to give meaning and purpose back to the individual. He writes in “Black Art” (Benston 115),

we want “poems that kill.”

Assassin poems, Poems that shoot

guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys

and take their weapons leaving them dead

with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland.

Baraka is giving his audience the stage directions he believes they need to break the chains of oppression, something he alludes to with his stage / performance directions in “Dope”, and he is giving direction to what had previously been the uncertainty that wracked the minds of generations. In “Gerontion”, Eliot’s narrator did not fight at the “hot gates” (Eliot 31) at Thermopylae, but Baraka’s generation fights at the hot gates of the inner city ghetto against the new forces of oppression, the “cops”. Baraka removes Hamlet’s doubt and returns his agency to act, even if it is bloody violent and might end in his own death – at least there will be decision and change! Perhaps Baraka is speaking “the sacred words” that will “raise up / return, destroy, and create,” (Kalaidjian 294) not just his people, but all people who have for too long been disenfranchised.

In 1957 Eliot wrote in his essay “The Music of Poetry”, “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be, a return to common speech,” (Harris 55). Just two years after Ginsberg’s “Howl”, Eliot is in effect saying that poetry (and thereby the poet) can give agency and voice to the people whom society has silenced. The same year Eliot was penning his essay on a potential “revolution in poetry”, The Little Rock Nine were being escorted to their classrooms by federal troops; black people would finally begin the process of integration into the white American educational system and thus become accredited members of Eliot’s Western Tradition.

Yet poetry alone was not going to open wide the gates of American institutions to the African American. While Eliot had been writing to and about an audience that while depersonalized at least had the agency to act, Baraka had been “given an ‘undesirable discharge’” from the military on the grounds that “he had been a communist” (Watts 27), and by 1964 he would write in his poem “Short Speech to My Friends”,

                             / The perversity

                              of separation, isolation,

after so many years of trying to enter

    their kingdoms, (Rich)

Adrienne Rich, herself an artist who explores the role of the oppressed and marginalized in her own work, describes Baraka’s disillusionment as that “… of a young artist doing what some few manage or dare to do: question the foundations of the neighborhood in which he or she has come of age and received affirmation,” (Rich). Just at a time when it would seem African Americans were beginning to be included as a legitimate segment of American society, Baraka only grows disillusioned with the idea of being subsumed by white America and by 1966 wrote in his essay collection “Home”, “The Black Artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it,” (Watts 175). Baraka doesn’t want to be part of Eliot’s Tradition, rather he writes in 1969,

… Hard work. Brutal work…. Build a house, man.

Build a city, A Nation. This is the heaviest

work. A poem? One Page? Ahhhh man, consider

200,000,000 people, feed and clothe them, in the

beauty of god. That is where it’s at. And yeh,

man, do it well. Incredibly Well. (Watts 196)

Baraka is calling for real, concrete action to aid the disenfranchised and voiceless. Poetry is a vehicle for revolution in the real world, not just in language as Eliot believes.

Baraka is honoring his people by leading them in a new direction, and in fact honoring his people is a concept in his 1965 novel, “The System of Dante’s Hell” where he puts the heretics, not the treacherous as Dante had, into the lowest levels of hell. Honoring his people and not selling himself or them out is more important than anything else and he is unwilling to let Eliot’s Tradition continue to define him and his people. Yet the irony here is that he is still using the Tradition; Eliot famously quotes Dante in an epigraph for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. He may have evicted the traitors and rearranged the furniture in hell, but it’s still Dante’s, and by tradition, Eliot’s hell. And so while Baraka rejects a tradition that, “continues to function in the artist’s work for the simple reason that a conscious act of repudiation does not necessarily constitute an expunging,” and that  “there will always be a tension between the artist’s proclaimed repudiation and the continuing role of that heritage in his work,” (Benston 72). Baraka goes as far as to put Eliot (as well as Pound and Joyce) in hell, but he is still acknowledging their influence by merely mentioning them.

I have spent much time here accusing Eliot of being little more than the establishment, but he too was a voice for changing cultural norms. In his 1915 poem “Cousin Nancy” he writes,

Miss Nancy Ellicott

Strode across the hills and broke them,

Rode across the hills and broke them –

The barren New England hills –

Riding to hounds

Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked

And danced all the modern dances;

And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,

But they knew that it was modern. (Cooper 8)

Eliot is aware the times are changing and that society and art will have to find new modes and methods to express itself. However, “Eliot’s deliberate association with popular culture, and with its largely African American roots, provided a way of laying claim to revolutionary cultural power while simultaneously acknowledging ambivalence about his relationship to it,” (Cooper 7). Just as Baraka has an uneasy relationship with the Western Tradition, Eliot’s relationship with the people he is writing about is just as complicated.

In conclusion, both poets give voice to the disenfranchised, yet both poets were not immune to the forces of oppression their work explores. Eliot was an anti-semite (Kakutani), and Baraka’s objectification of women, “the white woman understands that only in the rape sequence is she likely to get cleanly, viciously popped,” (Watts 332) is incendiary. And while I do not argue that their personal flaws negate the messages of their art, it is important to recognize the dualities present in each poet since it highlights the complexity of these issues of the poet’s role in their art. Eliot gives voice to the everyday person yet lionizes a system that has for centuries held little regard for anyone who is not white. Eliot’s world seems unsustainable as humanity is reduced to gathering scraps in a courtyard or as they ride over “barren New England hills”, and Baraka, though he fights against Eliot’s inherently racist and oppressive tradition in hopes of revolutionizing a better world, he nevertheless participates in homophobia and misogyny because this seemingly legitimizes him in the eyes of the black male community. Both poets are keenly aware of a tradition they are a part of and though Eliot chooses to conform to it – in fact has become the face for these traditional views – while Baraka fights against it, both reveal the struggle of the ordinary individual who must try to make sense of a world that is inherently oppressive.


Works Cited


Baraka, Amiri. “Dope.” Poetry Foundation. 2009.

Benston, Kimberly W., editor. Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1978.

Cooper, J. (2000). T.S. Eliot’s orchestra : Critical essays on poetry and music (Garland reference library of the humanities ; v. 2030). New York: Garland Pub.

Eliot, T. S. Selected Poems. San Diego: Harvest, 1998. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Perspecta, vol. 19, 1982, pp. 36–42.,

Harris, William J., The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka. University of Missouri Press, 1985.

Jones, LeRoi., The Systems of Dante’s Hell. Grove Press, Inc. 1963.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Bigotry in Motion”. The New York Times Magazine. 16 March 1997.

Kalaidjian, Walter., Understanding Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005.


Reilly, Charlie, editor. Conversations with Amiri Baraka. University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Rich, Adrienne. “What Country Is This? Rereading LeRoi Jones’s The Dead Lecturer.” Boston Review. 01 Mar. 2009.

Watts, Jerry Gafio., Amiri Baraka The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York University Press, 2001.

Le Morte Darthur: Redefining the “gentil” Man

‘But this much I shall offer me to you,’ said Sir Lancelot, ‘if it may please the King’s good grace and you, my lord Sir Gawain. I shall first begin at Sandwich, and there I shall go in my shirt barefoot; and at every ten miles’ end I shall found and gar make a house of religious …’

The revelation of Malory’s Lancelot is that a truly noble action is now to disarm oneself, offer generosity upon God, and allow God (or at least the church) to redistribute these gifts to those most needy.

A definition of nobility (gentil, gentle) which has been continuous through our texts concerns generosity. In Beowulf, Hrothgar is described as a “faultless king” (Beowulf, 121) due to his generosity. The giving of gifts is what a noble leader is supposed to do, and it is frowned upon when a leader fails to do so, such as in “Lanval” whom King Arthur “did not remember” (Lanval, 73). We’ve progressed a long way from Theseus giving gifts, “Conforeth and honoureth every man,” (Knight’s Tale, 2716), when Palamon’s losing, yet still heavily armed mercenaries needed to be kept from revolting due to any lingering shame they may have felt at losing the tournament.

Lancelot’s willingness to disarm himself (493) mirrors Sir Gaheris’ and Sir Gareth’s decision to remain unarmed, “we will be there in peaceable wise, and bear no harness of war upon us” (480) when Lancelot is to rescue the Queen. They will not take arms against he who had previously favored them because they are in debt to him, gift giving has strengthened and reaffirmed the bonds which tie clans together just as it had in Beowulf, “many men / will greet their friends with gifts;” (Beowulf, 120). By remaining unarmed they are humble before Lancelot, thus Lancelot’s decision reflects this respect shown to him.

Lancelot’s decision to found and endow, presumably at his own expense, a new church every ten miles is also revolutionary because rather than allowing the corrupt court of King Arthur (only King Arthur knew of Sir Gawain’s secret (502) of strength) to posses Lancelot’s wealth, he will give it to the church who might actually do some good with it. After all, The Pope has the authority to demand peace, “charging [Arthur] upon pain of interdicting of all England” (489) and so seeks the welfare of those who might otherwise be killed in a needless battle, such as Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth.

Thus Malory’s Lancelot redefines nobility by moving on from the gift giving which strengthened the bonds of warrior clans (as in Beowulf), or corrupt Arthurian court to providing a new definition of nobility through the peaceable actions of laying down arms so that innocent may not needlessly die, and endowing the ultimate authority, that of the church, with generous gifts to expand its influence.

Yet unlike Palamon’s men whose shame for losing was subdued by the generous Theseus of Chaucer’s Knight, Lancelot’s revolutionary ideas of what nobility should be are not accepted without a fight. Sir Gawain still holds to the old ideal of nobility found in Beowulf – he even possesses seemingly supernatural abilities as Beowulf had (502) –  but Lancelot wounds Sir Gawain to such an extent that the fatal blow eventually kills Sir Gawain, “And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawain yielded up the ghost.” (509). Malory’s Lancelot has, metaphorically, dealt the final blow upon the old / traditional definition of epic nobility and is now vanguard, in the guise of the church, “and there he put a habit upon Sir Lancelot” (521), for the new, humble nobility which seeks peace instead of war.

Beowulf: Beowulf and the Cup of the New Covenant

“Then the lady of the Helmings walked about the hall,

offering the precious, ornamented cup

to old and young alike,” (Beowulf, 89)

In Beowulf, gift giving is an important act. The King gives rings to the people as payment (76, 140), weapons and armor are handed down through families (120), and treasures are rewarded for bravery (100, 121) or to solidify a truce (85). However, these earthly gifts are transitory and will eventually rust (143), whereas the gift of eternal salvation through Christ’s covenant with man is offered repeatedly in the mead halls by the peace-weaving women (124).

Christ’s covenant with man is that of an arbitrator, someone who will fight evil for us and intercede on our behalf before God. No longer does man alone have to bear the burden of upholding ancient laws to achieve God’s salvation, Christ offers us Grace instead. And as part of this deal Christ asks us to have faith in Him alone and to remember this agreement as part of a ritual. In the Book of Matthew, 22:20 (ESV), Christ tells his disciples “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” He asks them (and us) to drink in memory of Him as a symbol of their faith in Him to succeed.

The New Covenant, however, is exactly what is missing from the world of Beowulf. Not only is Christ’s Covenant unknown to these people, they are even ignorant of the ancient laws preceding it. No wonder then that the Danes have angered a terrible creature from the time before even the ancient laws were enacted. How can the Danes be merry in Heorot when they live in ignorance of the God who banished these monsters and giants? (77, 113)

When Beowulf attempts to rid the world of these terrors he is taking the burden of the Dane’s sin upon himself as Christ would for us; he is sacrificing himself. And we should pause here for a moment to reflect how complicated this image is because we have to remember that Hrothgar puts his faith in Beowulf as we would Christ. Hrothgar does not know Christ either, yet he behaves correctly in letting a savior take on the burden of sin for him since he is powerless to do so alone. Our author is not saying Beowulf is Christ, Beowulf eventually loses his earthly treasure (his life) when he puts faith only in himself (145). Beowulf is a false savior, but is not a dishonorable one and thus he was well rewarded in this life for his efforts.

Yet ignorance of Grace is still no excuse because the cup of Grace is offered to everyone, “young and old alike” (89) in the hall of life (Heorot). Hrothgar and his wife, Wealhtheow, understand the meaning of faith and grace, and she as a peace-weaver (124) offers this knowledge to everyone who might have it – she is very Christ-like in this regard. Even when the cup is stolen (130) and hidden away in a barrow, it does not rid the world of our salvation through Grace. Jealous evil in the guise of the dragon might guard this treasure from men, and so much time may pass that this Grace passes from all memory, but it is still there and even a lowly thief, or slave (131) can happen upon it and be rewarded with its gift, “begged [his Lord] for the bond of peace”, “and that unhappy man was granted his prayer”.

Thus the cup we see referred to over and over in the poem (89, 99, 103, 123, 124, 129), is truly the cup of the new Covenant filled with the blood of Christ, the true hero of mankind, according to our poet.