Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Fairy Mounds and British Literature

I'm on my way to NH to present a paper . Here is the opening, on hills as portals to other worlds and on feasts refused.


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 Gorsedd Arberth, a mound atop which adventurers like Pwyll sit to seek wonders. In the Irish story of Cu Chulainn's love for Fand, queen of the sidhe, the hero enters a parallel "fairy" universe through a nondescript mound of earth. The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulainn and the Only Jealousy of Emer [Serglige Con Culainn ocus Oenet Emire] describes the beings who inhabit this subterranean world as not merely human, differing in their customs, ancient history, potency in magic. Cu 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 better inhabit his own. Like many Irish and some Welsh narratives involving mounds as portals to fay or demonic realms, The Wasting Sickness of Cu Chulainn seems to carry with it an untold story about the belatedness of a people to the land they now possess, figuring the territory's earlier inhabitants as an inhuman race whose traces are dwindling, whose presence lingers as if at a dimming twilight.

An eerily similar mound was transported into Yorkshire late in the twelfth century. The historian William of Newburgh described how as a drunken reveler stumbled homeward one night he heard singing resound from a tumulus (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 has opened in the mound to reveal a feast in progress. The celebrants invite the man to join them and even offer him a beverage. Not the most polite guest, he pours the drink from its ornate cup and flees on horseback to his village. In time the splendid goblet is passed to King Henry, and then circulates among the royalty as a curiosity. The object 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 in their conviviality.

What would happen, though, if the English drunkard had joined the celebration rather than stolen its tableware? What would happen if he had entered into conversation to its participants, if one of them had spoken the tale of who they were and what they honored at their table? Whose history would this creature narrate?

My guess is that this other story, barely glimpsed by an ordinary English man and narrated as a wondrous fragment by William of Newburgh, would be very different from the history that William composes, a history that can discern in this fairy mound not far from the place of his birth a lost tale rather than a living one. Were the celebrants of the subterranean repast invited to speak, the narrative they would tell would likely reveal the difference between English literature and British literature.

(with thanks to JKW for help with the Welsh)


Karl Steel said...

I suppose what we have here, in part, is a return to the literal from Augustine's allegory of the Hebrews' despoiling the Egyptians as a translatio rhetorici/doctrinae in his De Doctrina: or maybe translatio (furta?) narratium.

Does the cup evidence itself as fairy gold, or is it known as fairy gold only because of the stories told about it? If so, the lack of the miraculous around this object seems worth thinking about, too.

Safe travel and a good talk to you.

Karl Steel said...

Whatta mess. Later in the day. Let's see if I can translate that first paragraph into English.

For my benefit:
Augustine, De Doctrina, says it's okay to take the learning of the pagans just as it was okay for the Jews to steal the gold from the Egyptians.

Here's a fellow stealing gold, but what he's also stealing is history, stories, and a right to land. Seems analogous, and ironic, because he gets 'learning' and actual, not allegorical, gold at the same time.

Phwew! Get it?!

A better note: just read Glynn Berger's review of Laurie Finke & Martin Shichtman's King Arthur and the Myth of History in the Speculum that arrived today and it sounds right up your alley, JJC.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl: thanks for the clarification. The first post was nebulous and self-questioning enough to have been compsoed by Yours Truly, while the second made it all clear. Very useful to think of the scene as a staged translatio. Monika Otter does a good reading of the object's lack of miraculousness once removed from its mound, though to a very different end from the one I'm chasing.

Ian Myles Slater: thanks for the useful contextualization. I'm trying to piece together the prevalance and provencance of the motif in Yorkshire and East Anglia c. 1200 -- not an easy task. I didn't know about the Syrian cup at the V&A; wonderful.

Karl Steel said...

JJC: no way. The thing is that you actually manage to pull it off!

I think there actually was one moment a few months ago when the Intended and I were wrangling over one of my uglier sentences, and I pulled out your Giants book, and said: 'see, that's what I'm going for.' And said, 'well....except his makes sense.'

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The Intended is Very Bright Indeed, Karl.

Actually, I have to confess another embarrassing moment. About a year ago I was introduced to an audience by a presenter who read a short bit from Of Giants on Lacan and suture. The introducer declared: "A lucid explication of psychoanalysis!" Meanwhile I thought to myself: What the HELL did that passage mean? What was I on when I wrote it?"