Infinite Realms and Alternate Worlds:
Barrows, Portals and Possibility
An alium orbem somniat infinita regna habentem?
[Is he dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number?]
-- William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs, 1.Prologue
Medieval Welsh and Irish texts offer stories of worlds that exist in strange contiguity to everyday life. The Welsh otherworld of Annwn finds its gateway at a mound where adventurers sit to seek wonders. In the Irish story of Cú Chulainn's love for Fand, queen of the sídhe, the hero enters a parallel universe through a nondescript mound of earth. The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn describes the strange beings who inhabit this subterranean world as other than human, differing in their customs, ancient history, potency in magic. Cú Chulainn is "cured" of his self-destructive love for this Fairy Queen only through the intervention of an oblivion spell: he must forget the riches of her world in order to reinhabit his own. Like many Irish and Welsh narratives involving mounds as portals to fay or demonic realms, The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn seems to carry with it an untold story about the belatedness of a people to the land they possess, figuring the territory's earlier inhabitants as an inhuman race whose traces are dwindling, whose presence lingers as if at a dimming twilight.
My paper today begins at a similar mound, now transported into Yorkshire. The twelfth-century historian William of Newburgh described how as a drunken reveler stumbled home one night, he heard song resound from within a tumulus:
A countryman from this hamlet had gone to meet a friend staying in the next village. He was returning late at night a little drunk, when suddenly from a hillock close by ... he heard voices singing, as though people were feasting in celebration (History of English Affairs 1.28)
William assures us that this hill is quite near his own birthplace, and that he has seen it numerous times. On this particular night a door into the mound has opened [in latere tumuli januam patentem] to reveal a celebration in progress:
He approached and looked inside. Before his eyes was a large, well-lit dwelling crowded with men and women reclining at table as at a formal feast. One of the servants noticed him standing at the door, and offered him a cup.
Not the most polite guest, the man pours the drink from its cup and flees on horseback to his village. The revelers pursue him, eager to regain the stolen goblet, but his horse proves too swift for their feet. The cup is described as mysterious all around: "of unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape" [vasculum materiae incognitae, coloris insoliti, et formae inusitate]. In time the splendid cup is given to King Henry, Anglorum regi, as a gift. The object passes from the king of England to his brother-in-law David of Scotland, thence back to England's Henry II. Though the goblet circulates from the mysterious mound to an ordinary Englishman to a succession of regents (Anglo-Norman to Anglo-Scottish to Anglo-Angevin), its path is determined not by some weighty history behind the object, but via the object's agentless status as mere curiosity. The cup of unknown material and inscrutable origin is thereby transformed from the key to another world to a deracinated souvenir of some vaguely exotic elsewhere. The feast once refused recedes from memory, taking with it the history of that community glimpsed within the still mysterious mound.
What would happen, though, if the Yorkshire drunkard had joined the celebration inside the tumulus rather than stolen its tableware and fled? What would have come to pass had he entered into conversation with the subterranean congregants, if one of these revelers had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their table? Whose history would this mound-dweller narrate?
My guess is that this other story, barely glimpsed by a passing English man and narrated as a wondrous fragment by William of Newburgh, would be very different from the history that William otherwise composes, a history that can discern in this fairy mound only a lost tale rather than a living one. Were the celebrants of the underground feast invited to speak, the narrative they would tell would likely reveal the difference between English literature and British literature.
As the twelfth century came to a close, Wales and Ireland no longer posed so fierce a challenge to English dominion. No prospect of renewed internal strife was evident. Edged by barbarian peoples whose land awaited the impress of civilization, England considered itself not only Britain's cultural center, but Britannia itself. Henry of Huntingdon declared blandly that "this most celebrated of islands" might once have been called Albion, might later have been labeled Britain, but was now simply named England. King Arthur begins the century as a mythic Briton, probably embraced in an attempt to inspire Welsh pride, but by its end has been converted into a superbly English monarch.
Yet the "victory of Englishness" over the diversity of the archipelago to which it belonged came at a price. Claiming that Britain was now, simply and straightforwardly, England ensured that the more recent term would always be haunted by its predecessor. The island was, after all, still inhabited by peoples who did not share with the English an identity, history, or political mythology. England, in other words, could never fully Anglicize itself, let alone the island it shared with Wales and Scotland -- or the history it shared with Romans, Britons, Picts, Danes, the Irish. There would always be an archipelago dwelling within England.
For the most part England responded to this living history in the way that most domineering powers respond in the face of ethical complexities, by ignoring them. Yet histories anxiously relegated to silence frequently prove themselves to be like the undead who haunt the halls and barrows of Icelandic sagas: eerily returning in strange forms, relentlessly demanding that the unfinished business they incarnate be acknowledged. Just as in the sagas, moreover, such revenants entered the present moment with disturbing stories about trauma, memory, and the limits of community.
William of Newburgh was a twelfth century writer who composed in the shadow of a formidable tradition of English history writing. Today William's narrative is cited most frequently for his angry condemnation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey was essentially the inventor of king Arthur, and thereby an origin of medieval romance. Geoffrey taught the Middle Ages how to dream of fully realized Otherworlds, and though he composed a history, he helped to engender a new genre.
William of Newburgh, however, had little patience for romance or for proto-romantic history. He wrote that "clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writing about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of the ignorant," 1.Prologue). William's assertion that Geoffrey of Monmouth had been "dreaming some other world containing kingdoms without number" (1.Prologue) is, I would argue, intimately connected to William's narration of the alien feast beneath the English mound. Placed at an epistemic edge, the revelers figure a troubling fact that haunts William's unfolding English history: the lingering presence of aboriginal peoples in a Britain over which England has asserted complete dominion. On the one hand the island had by the end of the twelfth century been so long under a process of forced anglicization that English writers no longer bothered to distinguish between Britain and England; on the other the untimely intrusion of pre-English indigenous presence suggests that, even if the Normans became English, not every difference is so tractable. At once fragments of a fading past and a spectacular embodiment of a living people consigned to mere antiquity, the revelers in the tumulus undermine William's usually confident narration of the English nation.
Like most English writers of his day, William was no lover of the Scots, Irish, or Welsh. They are at best barbarians, at worst a feral people who amount to a national threat. The Scots are described as "thirsting for blood against the English people, through savage barbarity" (1.24; cf. 2.32, 2.34). The natives of Ireland are "uncivilized, and barbarous in their manners, almost totally ignorant of laws and order" (2.26). The Welsh are "a restless and barbarous people" (2.5). These last people, William explains, are
the remnant of the Britons, the first inhabitants of this island, now called England, but originally Britain ... when the Britons were being exterminated by the invading nations of the Angles, such as were able to escape fled into Wales ... and there this nation continues to the present day (2.5)
This passage makes it clear why Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain irritated William of Newburgh so much. William knows that the Welsh are the aborigines of the island; he knows that they once held the whole of Britain, and that they would argue strenuously against his declaration that "Britain" had been superseded by "England." William's rhetorical question ("Is he dreaming another world containing kingdoms without number?" 1.Prologue) is supposed to expose the patent ridiculousness of Geoffrey's narration. Yet it also reveals an anxiety that William implicitly voices through his prolonged condemnation of that author: what if Geoffrey is right? What if British history has not been subsumed into and assimilated by English history? What if Arthur resists conversion into an English king? Could it be that the island of Britain, despite the insistence of William and his contemporaries that it has been renamed and thoroughly Anglicized, what if that island remains so capacious that in fact its territories are rife with other worlds, with kingdoms lacking number?
English literature, and specifically romance written in English, betrays some cognizance of this possibility. Romance is replete with what by convention are called, resonantly enough, "Other Worlds." These spaces seem at once impossibly distant and unbearably close, intrusions into the quotidian of alternate realities. Through the portal of this wonderful realm beckons a place where the dreary rules that structure mundane existence are exchanged for eruptions of magic, strange transformations, fabulous wealth, landscapes fashioned of desire and dread. Jeff Rider describes romance other worlds as "dream worlds, wish worlds" ("The Other Worlds of Romance" 122), and we can see immediately what such expanses have in common with Geoffrey of Monmouth's kingdoms without number, with his infinite realms.
The action of the Breton lai "Sir Orfeo" is set into motion by such a dreamer of another world, of a realm without boundary that glimpsed in its fearsome allure. Heurodis falls asleep in a grassy orchard beneath an "ympe-tre" ["grafted tree," a living hybrid] and is snatched away by a radiant host. She beholds a "king o fairy" (283) who wears a crown "nas of silver, no of gold red / Ac it was of a precious ston"(15051) – no doubt William of Newburgh would have described the headpiece as of "unknown material, unusual color, and strange shape." This knightly incarnation of an Other world shows her sights of tremendous beauty, then announces that she must join him forever – not just in spirit, but in body, or that body will torn to fragments.
Though time prevents my analyzing this text at any length, let me offer a few observations. The fairy realm to which Heurodis is abducted is accessed by passing through a rock ("In at a roche the levidis rideth" 347), making it similar to the subterranean worlds envisioned by William of Newburgh, Gerald of Wales (Elidur's kingdom of tiny men), Marie de France (Yonec), as well as those Irish and Welsh mound-portals I mentioned at the beginning of my paper. There seems something quite British (that is, Welsh) about this Otherworld, since it seems to exist in strange contiguity to the England from which Heurodis is abducted. Anglocentric writers like William of Newburgh likewise imagined Wales to be, like all backwards countries as beheld through imperial eyes, locked in an unchanging time. Here bodies injured in war continue to bleed; those who have died are locked perpetually in the agony of their perishing; everyday life yields neither goal nor progress (e.g. when the Fairy King and his retinue go to hunt, they do not seem to pursue any animal, but simply make their mysterious way through the woods). "Sir Orfeo," it should be stressed, is – for all of its 605 lines of fast moving verse – one of the most ambitious colonial projects every launched in English literature, transforming the realm of classical myth into an English world (Orpheus is thus "king / In Inglond" [39-40]; his father and mother are Pluto and Juno; Winchester is shockingly declared the English name for Thrace). Yet perhaps the greatest violence that "Sir Orfeo" does to Britain is to vanish it entirely: like all examples from this quite English genre of writing, this lai claims origin not on the island but in Briatin's near homonym, Brittany (Breteyne), making it seem (as Marie de France does) that the story comes from a direct line of communication between England and an exotic elsewhere across the channel – dooming proximate Wales and a potentially multicultural Britain to oblivious silence.
Chaucer performs a similar set of maneuvers, though perhaps with more subtlety than the author of "Sir Orfeo." Internationally minded and far from jingoistic, Chaucer's works range geographically from Africa to Italy to the Mongol Empire, from heaven (Troilus and Criseyde) all the way to hell ('Friar's Tale'). Yet nearby Wales, Scotland and Ireland are almost entirely absent.
As an adolescent Chaucer was attached to the household of Prince Lionel, second in line for the English crown. As Count of Ulster, Lionel had inherited about half of Ireland through marriage. During his stay on the island in 1366, Lionel presided over a parliament in Kilkenny that issued a statute forbidding English settlers from adopting Irish language, customs, or dress (that is, forbade English assimilation). Even if he never set foot in Ireland, Chaucer was certainly aware throughout his life of the ongoing project of subjugating its population, partly through the promulgation of the very language in which he was composing poetry. Chaucer would also have been well aware of the colonial history of England in Wales, the site of sporadic but intense resistance long after its official conquest had ended in the previous century. He would have been frequently reminded of the fluctuating enmity and alliances that English nobles forged with Scotland, especially because his patron John of Gaunt became so embroiled in Scottish politics.
Chaucer's only avowedly "Celtic" narrative, the Breton lai told by the Franklin, completely ignores the non-English inhabitants with whom the writer shares the island by unfolding in Brittany rather than in nearby Wales. The setting seems especially perverse given that the names of the protagonists (Aurelius, Arveragus, and perhaps Dorigen) are taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, a profoundly influential text that provided the island a rich, pre-English history – and a text that was central to contemporary Welsh nationalism. Like all the Canterbury tales set abroad, moreover, the "speech and customs are thoroughly anglicized," as if the Bretons were Londoners and all the world were England (John Bowers). When the knight Arveragus travels abroad to hone his chivalry, he goes to 'Engelond, that cleped was eek Briteyne' (810), silently granting as ancient fact an equivalence for which only England would argue.
Chaucer's single Arthurian narrative, the 'Wife of Bath's Tale,' implies that this genre so intimately tied to Welsh nationalism is quaint and outdated, as insubstantial as the disappearing elves and fairies that populate its prologue:
In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede. (857-61)
The Britons (i.e. the Welsh) are aligned with the 'olde dayes' of the island (863). The "grene mede" is Chaucer's flattened version of the fairy mound we saw earlier in Ireland and Wales. It is the same mound inside which William of Newburgh's English observer witnessed a feast being celebrated and declined to participate, stealing from its riches but failing to comprehend the history and community behind the artifact.
Likewise, sadly, for Chaucer. "I speke of manye hundred yeres ago," the Wife of Bath declares as she gives her Arthurian romance its temporal setting. "But now kan no man se none elves mo" (863-64): Nowdays no one sees elves any more.