The Significance of the Other in Middle English Romance: Sir Isumbras and the alliterative Morte Arthure
This essay argues that the most common way to read the Other in medieval romance is somewhat lacking. Commonly, Othered figures are read as having a primarily mimetic function, representing contemporary understandings of the Other/Same boundary. However, this reading overlooks the way in which romance texts construct meaning, using generic motifs with specific narrative and symbolic functions. With this in mind, the Othered figures in two texts, Sir Isumbras and the alliterative Morte Arthure, are here read according to their narrative and symbolic functions, in the hope that these functions can suggest part of the generic function of the Other in romance. In Part 1, this way of reading the Other is outlined and defended. In Part 2, the first narrative function of the Other is identified – namely, that of a signal. It is argued that the way that the text’s Others are depicted provides a signal to the reader of the kind of problem that the text explores. In Sir Isumbras, the Other’s depiction indicates that the problem is an individual one, the problem of Isumbras’ pride. However, in the alliterative Morte the Other’s depiction suggests that the problem is a social one, namely the way that the heroic code drives Arthur to military excess. Finally, in Part 3 it will be shown that the Other has a second, more performative narrative function, revealing and articulating the problem explored by the text by acting as a dark mirror of its hero. The Othered figures opposing the text’s heroes are used to echo and magnify the heroes’ flaws, highlighting and exaggerating them. In Sir Isumbras, this merely adds to a didactic, overt critique of Isumbras’ pride, while in the alliterative Morte, Arthur’s dark mirrors themselves constitute the text’s sophisticated, implicit critique of the king and his code.