Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Guest Post: Clemence Housman's THE LIFE OF SIR AGLOVALE DE GALIS and the Psychology of Knighthood by E.L. Risden

reprint from Green Knight, 2000
Clemence Housman (1861-1955), sister of A. E. (Classicist and poet) and Laurence (playwright and illustrator), published The Life of Sir Agloval de Galis in 1905.*  Best known for The Were-Wolf (1896), a novella with a medieval setting, in which a man tries to save his brother from woman-wolf), she also published The Unknown Sea (1898), a third work of medievalism, in which a man falls in love with a sea witch.  While she hadn’t an enormous output as a writer and hasn’t the lingering readership of her more famous poet-brother A. E., she was also famous as a Suffragette and for her wood-engravings.  She shows a literary debt to Malory, but also to the neo-Gothic and to Victorian medievalism generally—and also perhaps to the rise of psychoanalysis.  This brief essays aims not at detailed criticism of Sir Agovale de Galis, but to direct attention to a neglected novel that deserves the status of at least a minor classic of medievalism and Arthuriana.  Just as science fiction is also usually sociological fiction, so is fantasy fiction often psychological fiction:  and Sir Aglovale is a psychological blockbuster.  As a gothicized Romance, it draws the character of Sir Aglovale, very limited in other Arthurian sources, into a captivating story of knighthood’s struggle with itself, of a knight’s struggle with himself for his own soul. 

Aglovale appears in Le Morte Darthur, but not with special significance.  Housman’s incarnation of the character shows a great deal of narrative and psychological complexity.  The eldest legitimate son of King Pellinore, he has brothers who gain much more fame than he:  Tor, Lamorak, Percivale of the Grail quest.  A fourth brother, Durnor, suffers both mental and spiritual challenges—he serves as a version of Aglovale without his brother’s dark, brooding self-doubt, but with a parallel distance from “proper” medieval social world.  Moral and spiritual suffering highlight this novel: desire for penance rather than absolution; self-criticism amidst self-absorption, with a sense of unworthiness leading nearly to despair and obsession with expiating guilt; desire for acceptance and love, but also for truth and order; constant struggle with both natural and illicit desire and human limitations—a strict sense of justice in relief against Christian mercy and unbelievable forgiveness (both offered and practiced); a growing sense of honor of honesty and truth fighting against Courtly notions of honor of the accepted approach to knightly challenges; the contrast of contemplation and doing good—Housman pinpoints the problem of how a self-aware and increasing self-critical knight could learn to live not only, in a fallen world, but within the tainted body of a flawed and self-loathing soul.

This novel has, among Arthurian works prior to the last third of the twentieth century, an unusual if not unique level of psycho-spiritual tension in the exploration of a fallen character who knows himself fallen and hates himself for the fact, but who also must day by day draw himself out of the muck of further mental and behavioral descent:  he is at once postmodern hero, anti-hero, and loathsome abuser of privilege, and sympathetic human being misunderstood by almost everyone he meets.  No one, not even his holy and supportive brother Percivale, understands him very well—even the reader may have a hard time doing so, since few protagonists float in such a mire of ill judgment and mixed intent.  Aglovale lives for the entire novel on the knife-edge of desire to please and sordid self-will, of desire for spiritual attainment dragged down by knighthood’s social privilege and drive for violence. 

Reprint from 1954
In many ways Aglovale may strike a reader as a displacement, a version of a modern reckless business manager or feckless CEO from the early twenty-first century or a Fitzgeraldian tycoon lost in time.  Struggles with spiritual visions both drive him on and hold him back.  He finds himself both admired and cursed—completely misunderstood by most, hated by nearly everyone, nearly dismissed entirely by his parents, and largely friendless—and hates himself for each breach of noble conduct even as he falls into more of them.  Our time would, if not have forgiven, at least have understood those breaches in a real human being, and contemporary readers may find even more sympathy for him than did his creator:  he learns to strive to live nobly and dies so, despite receiving nothing but contempt from Arthur and his retinue.  

Through no error of his own he falls into a familial semi-feud with the Gawain-kin who bear a fierce anger against his father, Pellinore.  Pellinore, a worthy knight and minor king, kills King Lot in Malory’s Romance, and the Gawain-kin don’t care whether that death was justified in battle or not.  But Aglovale’s greatest problem comes not from another family, but from his own:  his parents despise the fact that he hasn’t the noble demeanor of his more knightly brothers (though his mother does come around to a small expression of love for him), and his brothers don’t understand him.  They can’t forgive anything that looks to them less than ideal chivalry, and Aglovale has enough perception of human frailty to realize that the chivalric ideal has its problems and that behavior typical of noblemen can be exploitative and even brutal to those they claim to defend.  Housman compares him serially to other knights (much as Malory does with all the knights throughout the Morte), and Aglovale alternately wants to feel part of their society and shuns it as full of lies and hypocrisy—he is, himself, a recovering hypocrite.  Other knights deplore his “sin” (-ister), fighting with his left hand, and they hate him for recognizing and admitting his own failures of courage, morality, or skill. 

First edition from 1905
Housman, in a technique reminiscent of Shakespeare as well as Malory in the Morte, continually sets up doubles for Aglovale, making him, whether he would or no, the antagonist and infernal version of many other knights, at least from their perspective.  Here are some examples.  The doubling urges readers to compare not only the knights, but their understanding of goodness and chivalry. 
Aglovale vs. Launcelot (or Galahad)
Galahad, being pure and so free of spiritual angst, would have no understanding of Aglovale, but Launcelot makes a more interesting comparison.  Of all Arthur’s knights he shows the most understanding and appreciation of and sympathy for Aglovale, perhaps because of his own deep sin, though even he loses patience with Aglovale’s quirks and inability to articulate the reasons for his suffering.

Aglovale vs. Lamorak
Lamorak is the favored son, even though he isn’t the first son, of their parents:  he talks the talk of a proper knight and, for the most part, walks the walk, though he gets into a deadly romantic relationship (with Morgause) that a sensible knight would avoid.

Aglovale vs. Durnor
The younger son actually loves and admires his brother Aglovale, but he hasn’t the wit or intelligence to make anything but a mess of his life:  he is Aglovale without intelligence and self-recrimination, and he is killed early in the novel—something that could easily have happened to Aglovale, eliminating his long and well-earned repentance.

Aglovale vs. Tor
Tor, Pellinore’s bastard son, receives more acclaim and appreciation than his legitimate brother because he adheres more nearly to the chivalric code.  He comes to appreciate Aglovale’s honesty and the goodness of which he proves himself capable at his best.

Aglovale vs. Percivale
Aglovale adores his spiritually upright brother, but even Percivale fails finally in his ability to love his less-than-perfect brother:  while Arthur’s court expects chivalric perfection, the Grail knight expects his own version of spiritual perfection—a fault, as the author points out, of the young and innocent.  Housman also briefly and sympathetically treats their sister, in this book named Saint, sometimes identified in other texts as Blanchfleur.

Aglovale vs. Bors
A Grail knight himself, Bors—exhibiting his own error—shows no patience with another knight he considers infinitely flawed, and he has no understanding of why Launcelot shows sympathy for a knight he considers beneath contempt.  Bors begins to understand Aglovale, but rejects him when Aglovale—knowing Launcelot guilty—refuses to leave Arthur’s court (where he has always been treated badly) and join Launcelot (where he would get better treatment).  More and more through the novel Aglovale tries to determine what he believes is right and to follow it.

Aglovale has only problematic relationships with women (whether ladies or girls, whether by his own faults or by their misunderstandings.  The text draws particular attention to two interesting and contrasting examples.

Aglovale and Gilleis
In one of the saddest episodes of the novel, Aglovale lies and leads a young woman, Gilleis, away from her love of a good young knight.  The knight is eventually killed, and Gilleis dies of grief upon Aglovale’s confessing how he won her affection.  He confesses his guilt to Nacien the Hermit, but in the remainder of the novel never gets over what he has done to someone he truly has loved.

Aglovale and Laykin
This episode parallels the story of Gilleis.  Aglovale rescues a beautiful young girl from freezing to death by wrapping himself around her to keep her warm.  She turns out to be his niece, daughter of his half-brother Tor, and his respectful treatment of her saves his life, since Tor’s family would otherwise have killed him.

At one point late in the novel, Sir Griflet describes Aglovale as “the bravest man that ever I saw fail; yet so cursed” (164).  Near the end Sir Ector observes to Launcelot that “for all you say Sir Aglovale goes not by the ways of knighthood,” and Sir Launcelot replies, “Alas for knighthood” (265).  This book does not fall into the easy error of praising knighthood as we find it in history, in literature, or in our imaginations; it addresses, sometimes satirically and sometimes with painful, realistic directness all its flaws and hypocrisies.  It shows the knights at their best and at their worst, and better yet it shows that their best often stands not far from their worst.     

A powerful novel of the kind of the variegated darkness that can haunt a soul, Modern in its medievalism, medieval in its genesis, The Life of Sir Agovale de Galis recalls in its questioning of the institution of knighthood a principle of the Anglo-Saxon world that preceded it.  It directs a reader’s attention much as does the final line of Beowulf in its use of the word lofgeornost, “the greatest of praise-yearning”—one may desire both to get and to give praise, and perhaps most of us do.  The psychological complexity that we think of as springing from the modern and contemporary world, Housman suggests, must have been with us, misleading and tormenting us, all along, even in characters we wish to believe represent us at our most noble.  Not a beautiful novel, Sir Aglovale does something unusual in Arthuriana:  it urges us to think about deep-down human suffering.

* Sincere thanks to Doug Anderson, who gave me a copy with this novel along with a request that I take it seriously enough to write something about it someday.  He was entirely right to praise it, and I have aimed ever since to pass along the favor to other fans of Arthurian literature.  See The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis (Oakland, CA:  Green Knight Publishing, 2000), Introduction by Douglas A. Anderson.

E.L. Risden is a well-known medieval scholar who teaches at St. Norbert College and who is the author of many books of scholarship.  His fantasy fiction appears under the pseudonym "Edward S. Louis": see his website by clicking here.  

(c) 2016 by E.L. Risden 

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