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Excessive both in his early violence and his later devotion, Gowther abdicates his duchy, marries the princess whose life and voice were miraculously restored, rises to the position of Emperor, and, on his death, becomes a saint.A hodgepodge of shocking violence and sobering devotion, this narrative poses some interesting questions for the student of Middle English literature.Gowther’s demonic pedigree shows itself early as he literally sucks dry nine nursemaids, all of whom die.
Otherwise, the text has until recently been largely ignored by literary critics, who often balk at the structural and artistic deficiencies of this poorly told popular romance. Charbonneau likely captures something of the response many a new critic once had to the poem when she laments, “How could an author expect us to believe this hopelessly ill-prepared transformation from devil’s son to saint . I enjoy teaching this poem, which has much to say about the late middle ages, and I’ve found my students are fascinated both by the narrative itself and the poem’s relationships to more canonical medieval works.
begins by describing Gowther’s conception, which resulted from a union between a human duchess and the very same demon who earlier fathered Merlin himself.
To prove his contrition and carry out his penance, Gowther eats only what has first been in the mouth of a dog and regularly lounges, dog-like, under the table of the Emperor’s court before demonstrating his martial abilities in a Holy War against the enemies of Christendom.
Fighting in three days of hard battle, he rescues the Emperor himself and kills a pagan Sultan who earlier demanded the hand of the Emperor’s mute daughter.
A more traditional approach to the poem might focus on plot and emphasize Gowther’s relinquishing of excessive violence and his adoption of a proper chivalric identity (Blamires, Mc Gregor, Mitchell-Smith).
Using such an approach, one might construct a unit comparing , or any number of Arthurian texts that contemplate the role of violence in knightly culture and the ways in which chivalric literature identifies licit and illicit forms of violence in the act of constructing proper knightly behavior.
This is often the context that makes most sense for students, and there’s enough critics writing on this issue that it can be pursued through new critical, cultural studies, and psychoanalytic approaches.
Critics likewise have focused on the role of penitence in the text, and in the survey course I’ve used as a kind of transitional piece as we move away from courtly, chivalric literature to religious genres and concerns.
B.43 and National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1.
Both the Royal and Advocates versions are available in print (Rumble 179-204 and Laskaya and Salisbury, respectively).