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6 - Dark Nights of Romance: Thinking and Feeling in the Moment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

The work of Elizabeth Archibald spans many languages and many genres: Latin, French, Scots, English; history, morality, comedy, lyric and most of all romance. That recurrent interest in romance is no coincidence, for it is here, in the fiction of the Middle Ages, that medieval imagination is most evidently at work, and that Elizabeth’s project of ‘literary archaeology’ has been most richly repaid. Her interests in romance have been various: beginnings and endings; mothers and daughters; fellowship and strife; speech and silence; beauty and bathing; love and incest. Yet they have in common an emphasis on the disruptions, the undoings, the subversions of order, in the ways that violence, desire and error can overturn the ideal. Such disruption is the subject of her extended study of incest, but figures in many other ways across her work, seen in microcosm in violations of home and private spaces and in violence resulting from untrammelled feeling, and in macrocosm in the fall of the Arthurian kingdom. For repeatedly within romance, it is the moments of extreme difficulty, violence and suffering that provide narratives with their dramatic arc. As Northrop Frye wrote, the movement of romance is characteristically from darkness to light, disorder to order, winter to spring. This movement is enacted in stories of test, quest, adventure, challenge, journey and homecoming, powerful human narratives that recur across times and places, gesturing towards the strength of hope in adversity and to the ways in which story is rooted in patterns. To focus on these large patterns, however, can mask romance’s engagement with individual thinking and feeling in the moment, with the ways in which mind, body and affect respond to extreme experience of violent, disruptive or traumatic kinds. Nor is the pattern of hope straightforward. As Elizabeth has shown in her work on incest, disorder can also often seem ominously near, and darkness, as at the end of the Arthurian legend, can return.

Contemporary models of resilience in traumatic circumstances, like Frye’s model, emphasize order and emergence: coping in the face of adversity and positive outcomes, the journey from darkness to light. However, the pattern is often narrowly conceived.

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 77 - 92
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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