Friday, December 08, 2006

Let Hodain have his fun

Happy dog!
Originally uploaded by mivox.
Earlier today, I started to write a post on the Middle English Ser Tristrem. In this version, as in several others, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because of a magic potion. In an odd, funny touch, Tristan's dog, Hodain, also has a taste of the love potion. Here's what happens:
Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
As tho.
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also. (1684-94)
That last line's quite a shocker, isn't it? I read it, initially, as a hint of bestiality, a sort of menage à chien, and rushed--in my desultory way--to write a blog post, before I caught myself up short: what if the medievals knew this was funny?* In the spirit of our various posts about reuniting pleasure and scholarship, and in honor, too, of Wiley, I decided I wanted to try to allow the past a bit of unadulterated pleasure. While I'm sufficiently disenchanted to know there can never be such a thing, nonetheless I think we--or certainly, I--all too often treat all things in our field as pathological: the crisis of this and that, everything and its discontents, and so forth. It's as if what we study merits our attention only in direct proportion to its danger: it must threaten everything we know and are, it must keep its world under control only by strenuous disavowal, it must not be just a silly obscure pig joke or an article about farts (warning: pdf). Otherwise, we're wasting our time, letting ourselves and the medievals have too much fun, while real scholarship stomps past, fixing us with its baleful eye, upholding its sense of importance in a world that daily views us (perhaps justifiably so!) as less and less relevant.

Of course, we can ask why the hint of Hodain mixing himself up in this way is funny. In part, it's recognition. I think we've all had a cold dog nose meet us where we'd rather be left alone. But there's also the mixup, the fact that nonhuman animals should not be involved--whether alive or dead--in sex. At least not with us. Why that is certainly merits a suspicious investigation into the psychopathology of the human--which is precisely the post I initially meant to write--but for now, I just want to let well enough alone. I had a laugh, shockingly, while reading a Middle English chivalric narrative. For that laugh, much thanks to whoever's responsible for
Ser Tristrem, and much thanks to Alan Lupack for his excellent introduction to the TEAMS edition and his argument for its parodic content.

Now, an invitation, for the weekend and following, as we stumble towards the end of the semester. Either talk a bit about humor and scholarship, or, if you have something in mind--and I know this will be particularly difficult for the Anglo-Saxonists--give us a few medieval bits that you've decided to let be funny. Extra credit if it's not from Chaucer or Deschamps.

* Update: Okay, I know it probably means "And Houdain loved her too," in the sense of some kind of canine agape. And that's why the dog was so loyal to the two of them. But that joke is all the funnier, I think, for not being as straightforward as all that. Ok?


  1. Anonymous1:19 AM

    Well answering from the pre-1066 sector, I can think of at least a few, though my memory fades this late at night (doesn't Jonathan Wilcox write on this? I don't have anything by him handy...). Leaving the riddles out (which tend to be funny even when not double entendre!) -- there are several moments in Beowulf that I don't think could help being funny, even in Anglo-Saxon England. My favorite example: nearly every time they say "þæt wæs god cyning."

    I try to imagine the audience of Beowulf listening to the poem, nodding sagely. That's usually enough to send *me* into fits of laughter. For them? The fact that it's describing Hrothgar, who sought his queen's bed when his hall was under attack. A mere 700 or so lines after Scyld Scefing so terrorized the surrounding tribes that they all paid him gold to stop, and obeyed his command...and was also lauded, þæt wæs god cyning. And then there's Hrothgar -- yeah, that was one good king.

    Any other pre-1066 responses? I'm curious now, as I don't often think of the humour in Anglo-Saxon texts, or really medieval in general. I guess that's what I get for not doing much with Chaucer, eh?

  2. Anonymous7:48 AM

    Ser Tristem, yes. I seem to have an edition printed from a variant MS:

    Al blithe was the knight,
    He might with hir play.
    That wist Brengwain the bright
    As tho.
    Thai loved with al hir might
    And Hodain dede also
    Frotteth upon her legge
    and rubbeth all up her shinne,
    With tonge all askew
    And blenknesse in his eyen
    Til 'aroynt' quoth she,
    'daft dogge, get off,'
    and smit him with a newes-shete
    enrolled up liken as a tuybe.

  3. smit him with a newes-shete

    AR: Very funny, and unexpected, but not with a "yerde smerte"?

    Anhaga: I think, maybe, in the back of my mind I've thought that line funny too.

    The obvious places to look for humor are of course the fabliaux and the works that draw on them--some Chaucer, large chunks of the Decameron--but what interests me are works and genres you don't expect to be funny. What especially interests me is when their humor isn't scatological, since that seems to be a dominant mode of humor (then as now?). The Beowulf is a perfect example, Anhaga: no one would expect that to be funny. Chivalric narrative? Well, I tend not to find it funny; there's a lot of jeering going on--between knights (especially from Kay), against Jews and Muslims and peasants and burghers--and some unsettling over-reactions, like Cliges' savage response when a Saxon knight calls him "gars" (servant or "varlet") (Cliges kills the knight, takes his horse, and rides off, having affixed the dead knight's head to the end of his lance) or Erec's dragging Enide around with him questing after forbidding her to speak. But unsettling isn't funny.

    All this is a long way of saying: keep it coming, in whatever direction you want the discussion, or compilation, to go.

  4. I'm so glad that Anhaga has brought up Hrothgar and the "þæt wæs god cyning" line that punctuates the narrative so often, usually after a narrative bit having to do with Hrothgar's complete ineffectiveness, even in some cases, with his [kind of ] effeminate withdrawal. For a very long time, Anglo-Saxonists just would *not* let go of the idea that the "Beowulf"-poet could not possibly have a sense of humor [or even irony]--because, you know, those things are "modern"--and a lot of scholarly ink was wasted trying to "prove" that the poet really really believed Hrothgar was, indeed, a great king, and Grendel was just, um, beyond his capacity to act. Scott DeGregorio wrote an article in "Exemplaria" on the use of irony in the poem [following some of Linda Hutcheon's writing on the subject], specifically in relation to the poet's treatment of Hrothgar, so I think we have now decided that the "Beowulf"-poet *could* have had a sly sense of humor. [The article is "Theorizing Irony in 'Beowulf': The Case of Hrothgar," EXEMPLARIA 11.2 (Fall 1999)] Even before this, though, in his book "Rereading Beowulf," Ted Irving wrote a wonderful analysis of Hrothgar's character that really captured his ambiguity: he's both "good" and "not good," really, and even, at times, a bit of a hysteric.

    And Anhaga is also right to remember Jonathan Wilcox who edited the collection of essays, "Humor in Anglo-Saxon Literature," much of which is focused on the Old English Ruddles, of course. But in terms of finding humor in unlikely places, nothing beats Wilcox's essay, "Famous Last Words: AElfric's Saints Facing Death," ESSAYS IN MEDIEVAL STUDIES 10 (1994): 1-13, in which he looks at the humor in saints' death scenes. Much of the hagiographic corpus, I would argue, in both the OE *and* ME tradition *can* be quite funny, if read in the right way {I mean, severed heads that cry out, "here, here, here"?], which tells us [as I think Karl has already said] that humor often has as much to do with our disposition as readers as it has to do with the texts themselves [or with authors' intentions in general].

    A friend of mine, who watches as much trash television as I do, and I conducted an experiment a few years ago. We regularly watched the WB Network show "7th Heaven," which is a kind of earnest updated "The Waltons"-type family drama about a minister and his large family, who are all so blonde that even the dog is blonde [i.e., they're white, conservative, Puritan Americans, and many of the shows' themes revolved around this fact and the supposed "traumas" that visit such a family]. The creator and head writer, Brenda Hampton, is a well-known conservative, politically [although I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that she also helped Kirstie Alley write and produce "Fat Actress," another of my favorites], and the show was always a blend of family-oriented treacle, mild soap opera [ohmygod--one of the reverend's son, who is in college for chrissakes, is having sex *before* getting married!], and political propaganda [one show, about two years ago, was devoted, in a kind of sly way, to supporting the war in Iraq]. ANYWAY. My friend and I decided that instead of watching this show and always getting mad about it and its family-values dogma [and, um, we couldn't NOT watch it because we were addicted], we decided to watch it as if it were written to be an intentional parody of the genre, and it was so funny after that, hysterically so. We changed the *way* we watched it, and the whole show changed before our eyes. It was great.

  5. Most probably from the pre-1066 origin (though not in ms form), moving further north than England, I think of the Havamal, from the Poetic Edda. Within a seemingly serious series of gnomic verses and Odinn's adventures, we see the god foiled in his own monologue. After relating his attempts to woo (or seduce) "Billing's girl," he is sent away till the morning. The poem relates (strophe 101, from Carolyne Larrington's translation):

    And near morning, when I came again,
    then the hall-company were asleep;
    a bitch I found then tied to the bed
    of that good woman.

    Clearly, Odinn is upset with this turn of events, and the following imparted wisdom rests mainly on the "fickle" and "cunning woman" (st. 102). For a god so cunning himself (especially, it seems from Norse texts, with women), this is all ironically humorous.

  6. Canine agape? I don't know. What's brilliant about Sir Tristem is that the dog imbibes the same love potion that propels Tristan and Isolde to desire each other and consummate that love. Shouldn't Hodain likewise be entitled to his lust? (Then again, the dog does simply lick the remnants of the potion rather than share a full swig like his human counterparts). And you know, any author who has a dog lapping up a love potion and joining his human companions in a triangular menage has a sense of humor. Q.E.D.

    Hodain reminds me of an animal companion in Bevis of Hampton, the horse Arundel. The mount is as important to Bevis as his wife Josian. Both die, naturally, on the same day. Here, though, it isn't so funny as identity-giving.

    Anyone who doesn't believe medieval people had a sense of humor need only read Gerald of Wales, who tells joke. For example, in Ireland:
    OBNOXIOUS CONQUISTIDOR: You Irish are religious slackards. Your lack of martyrs proves it.
    BISHOP OF CASHEL: Now that people like you have arrived, we'll have plenty of martyrs.
    Examples could be multiplied. Interestingly, Gerald's comedians tend to be the dispossessed: the Irish, Jews, people in trouble.

    Also, let's not forget that medieval women undoubtedly had a sense of humor just as subtle. One of my favorite lines in Marie de France's "Guigemar" occurs when the lady who has been immured for years in a solitary tower decides to leave to find her love ... and discovers that, perhaps during the entirety of her long imprisonment, the tower's door has been unlocked.

  7. One more piece of bibliography springs to mind as I contemplate slaughtering Kid #2 for singing loud songs rather than napping:

    Joseph Harris, "Beowulf's Last Words," Speculum 67 (1992), 1-32.

    The essay has a good survey of the dying words recorded in Icelandic sagas (such as mentioning that a certain kind of sword has now come back into fashion as you watch it impale you). The dark humor of these utterances seems an attempt to preserve memory after death.

  8. Anonymous9:38 AM

    I don't mean to kill the vibe, but couldn't this instance be both funny and awful in the ways you originally anticipated? I don't think I quite follow the distinction.

  9. Anonymous4:55 PM

    I posted the retelling of a humorous French epic in my blog - plus some extra info.

    Btw, I love those last words in Icelandic sagas.

  10. I don't mean to kill the vibe, but couldn't this instance be both funny and awful in the ways you originally anticipated?

    More to say later on everyone's posts, but first, H. D., is this "you" me or JJC or someone else?

  11. Anonymous11:34 PM

    whoops, sorry, karl. it was a question for you...

  12. but couldn't this instance be both funny and awful in the ways you originally anticipated? I don't think I quite follow the distinction.

    The wanted to refuse, for a time, to see the joke about Houdain's participation in Tristan and Iseult's lovemaking as some kind pathology. If I didn't "just" let the joke be funny, I'd want to consider the reason for this being a joke at all: it's because sex between humans should be only between humans. The fact that the dog's participation is funny, in other words, is a function of what I think the psychopathology of the human, the defense of the human through, among other means, erotic boundaries.

    Part of what's interesting about this set up is that animal eros is typically thought to be irrational, but also, because of this lack, not subject to the whimsy of choice. Because animals don't make a decision about sex, they tend (to be thought) to make better decisions (not that what they're doing can be thought a decision). By contrast, humans make choices, which means they can make mistakes; the gift of reason, in terms of eros, seems to be, first, the introduction of superfluity into the erotic object--there's something irreducibly more than instinct guiding us--and, second, because of that superfluity, the possibility of a mistake. Among the many things that is appalling about Evolutionary Psychology is its effort to strip all eros of choice, the boil off its superfluity, to eliminate the 'mistakes' of reason, of responsibility, and of the inexplicable elements that, by preventing any decision from being straightforwardly "ours," prevent any decision from being able to be perfectly fixed as our responsibility. Thank goodness we literary types don't have that positivist arrogance!

    To return to Ser Tristrem, we have the animal joining in, naturally enough, because Tristan and Iseult's reason has left them; they're compelled by a (super)natural force not their own. On the one hand, Tristan and Iseult have made a terrible mistake in loving each other; on the other hand, because of the potion, they're not responsible. Because of their lack of responsibility, but also because they've made the choice they should have made--Tristan is the best knight, Iseult is the best lady, so they belong together--Tristan and Iseult have become like animals. They're not responsible; they're guided by an eros not their own; they're beyond or below or whatever special metaphor you think best the capacity to make "mistakes." Houdain's love--which is, even without the magic potion, the natural state of a dog, proverbially "man's best friend" as far back as Isidore, at least--is, then, "just" a materialization of this (un)natural irrational eros.

    Something like that. I'm modeling the kind of reading I might do if I wanted to lean on the episode as pathological (although I would expect that if I developed this reading, it would be a bit more direct, less opaque). But I was wondering in my post what we get if we just allow the episode to be funny. If we imagine, for a while, that not so much is at stake. If we don't show off by dragging the joke away from its humor up into the grim realm of critique, where every effort at identity, every articulation, is evidence of a crisis. What would happen if we just let Hodain have his fun? What would we gain as critics?

    I want to say thanks, everyone, for all your examples, and fiction too. It's been a lot of fun to read. Here's one more example, from the early 12th c. outlaw/resistence story of Hereward. Hereward is fighting Letold, an contemptuous Saxon knight. Here's how the fight ends:

    "[having lost his first sword] Hereward drew from its sheath a second sword which he had forgotten, and attacked his opponent more vigorously. And at the first blow, while feigning an attack on the head, he struck the man in the middle of his thigh. Still the soldier defended himself for some time on his knees, declaring that for as long as there was life in him he would never be willing to surrender or look beaten" (A Book of Medieval Outlaws 57). I think we're all fans of Monty Python here: I'd be surprised if I'm the only one who read this and thought, "None shall pass!" or "It's just a flesh wound."

    (can't remember, JJC, if you discussed Hereward in ODM. This work is marvelous for England and its cultures. We have Frenchmen doing parodies of English dancing, discussions of the English style of knighting (English knights must be dubbed by monks), Frenchmen speaking French around people they suppose peasants, (mis)figuring they won't be understood, "English-style feasts in the monks' refectory" of Ely, &c., much complaining about foreigners, King William using a "Scandinavian" mode of witchcraft, and eventually, Hereward joining the court of William)

  13. Hey Karl, I'm waaaaay behind on, well, everything, especially blogging, so I just saw this. Wiley says thanks for honoring him in this appropriately medieval way (the Pastry Pirate, in addition to her love of all things piratical, loves the Middle Ages)! The dog in the picture even looks like a bit like him!

  14. Good lord, on second thought, I don't think what I last posted made much sense. I modeled a reading. A bad reading.

    Let's just say I wonder what a criticism that allowed for non-pathological pleasure, both in ourselves and in the texts we study, would look like. I don't know. It would still be a disenchanted reading, it would still be suspicious: I'm not asking for a "return to beauty" or something like that, but neither am I pushing some kind of post-secular critical line. I'm just wondering if it's possible to replicate, in criticism, the pleasure I felt--that I shared with the past--when I laughed at the Houdain line. The only way I've been taught to go at such things is to push the laughter back, to ironize it at the least, to fit it into some pathological model. Certainly that's going to produce a good reading--with all due respect to my crappy example--but because it's been the model of criticism, at least the really exciting stuff, for ages, I wonder if there's something else we can do to respect* an aspect of reading, of living, that the criticism has been singularly unable to handle.

    * Tellingly, I have no idea what verb should go here. That's how far I feel from what this criticism might be.


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