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Title: From little acorns : trees and wood in Middle English romance
Author: Howarth, Danielle Kathryn
ISNI:       0000 0004 8510 2902
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 2020
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Trees occupy a paradoxical place in the genre of Middle English romance. They are central to romance narratives, but their ubiquitous presence is almost completely overlooked by the genre’s protagonists, and has been largely neglected by its readership. This thesis addresses this paradox, as it seeks to account for the neglect of trees both within the narrative world of romance itself, and the broader critical discourses which have grown up around it. Drawing on a range of critical and theoretical disciplines, the thesis analyses both the broad spectrum of meanings which are attached to trees in the genre, and the ways in which trees frame and catalyse the human dramas on which romance narratives primarily focus. Trees are essential to medieval romance, as forest, wood, wilderness, garden, and orchard settings are integral to the genre. These settings form the backdrop for chivalric encounters and expressions of courtly love, as well as for the innumerable emotional dramas and rites of passage on which romance narratives hinge. The trees that make up these spaces tend to be largely invisible, both within romance texts and within most of the scholarship that addresses them. However, trees are present in many forms in medieval literature: individual trees within these settings occasionally come to the foreground, arboreal metaphors occur at key narrative moments, and wooden objects such as weapons, musical instruments, ships, and spindles make up the material world of romance. In this thesis I argue that focussing on the rare instances of arboreal visibility in certain Middle English romances – Le Morte Darthur, Ywain and Gawain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Middle English Breton Lays, and Sir Tristrem – provides a fruitful way to explore these texts from a new perspective. Drawing on aspects of ecocriticism, ecofeminism, and studies of materiality, this thesis is situated in fields that encourage this focus on the non-human as a way to understand what it means to be human, and to enable a greater understanding of our place in the world. Using trees as a starting point to consider human relationships with the non-human reveals how human and nonhuman are entangled in various ways that trouble conventional hierarchies of power in these medieval romances. In particular, I explore how trees can define and construct masculine, chivalric identities, and how the feminine often has a different relationship with the arboreal. Focussing on these relationships opens up spaces for alternative discourses of power, in which the feminine and the non-human hold marginal authority. Trees, arboreal metaphors, and wooden objects witness moments of heightened tension and come to participate in the narrative as actants that both protect and threaten human identities, and which have the power to communicate from the shadows of the narrative.
Supervisor: Salter, David ; Dunnigan, Sarah Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: medieval literature ; medieval romance ; archetypal figures ; tree metaphors ; Le Morte Darthur ; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight