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Perverse and Contrary Deeds: The Giant of Mont Saint Michel and the Alliterative Morte Arthure

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Thomas H. Crofts
Affiliation:
East Tennessee State University
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Summary

BY WAY OF introduction, I would like to look again at one of the most well-known words in the alliterative Morte Arthure. In the proem, just when the poet turns from the Almighty to his earthly listeners, he gives this indication of his subject matter:

Ʒe that liste has to lyth or luffes for to here

Off elders of alde tym and of theire awke dedys,

How they were lele in theire lawe, and louede God Almyghty.

In apposition to the ‘elders’ are their deeds, which the poet calls ‘awke’, in Edmund Brock's gloss ‘perverse and contrary’, in Krishna's ‘strange, perverse’. It is a rare usage, but Malory's employment of the word in his ‘Tristram’ section is instructive: ‘And therewithal sir Trystrames strode unto hym and toke his lady from him, and with an awke stroke he smote of hir hede clene’. In his glossary to Vinaver's edition, G. L. Brooke supplies ‘back-handed’ for awke, and for awkewarde (at 230:10, also describing a sword-stroke) ‘with a backward stroke’. ‘Awke dedys’, then, according to the alliterative poem's argument, play out over the total genealogy of the elders in question, which genealogy, we should recall, is not only Arthurian, but, as indicated in the poem's concluding lines, also Trojan:

Thus endis kyng Arthure, as auctors allegges,

That was of Ectores blude, the kynge sone of Troye,

And of sir Pryamous, the prynce, praysed in erthe;

ffro thethene broghte the Bretons alle his bolde eldyrs

In-to Bretayne the brode, as the Bruytte tellys. (4342–6)

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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