So, if translated works from medieval literature were mixed in with modern literature, how could they be distinguished? Aside from the obvious details of setting and custom, of course, what makes the texts distinctly medieval?
First, it would be a difficult task to compare and contrast the translations with similar works of modern literature. However, I don’t believe that there are such works of modern literature that would be similar enough to provide ample room for this sort of test.
Most of the medieval texts, though this is not entirely inclusive, have been in allegorical form, meaning that they are short, morally implicit stories.
What particular reading strategies did I use to deal with this “medievalness,” and how successful was I?
Modern texts tend to focus more on characterization and varying the knightly plot. Medieval literature tends to have only one focus, and they rarely consume more than a hundred pages, at least the selections that we read this semester. That, in itself, could determine which time the story came from, looking at total page numbers. Modern stories, even the crappy short ones, generally need to reach beyond the hundred-page mark just to get published. But let’s ignore that little point and just look at the writing itself.
Plot is important to consider in comparing modern to medieval texts. Unfortunately, this is more general a discussion than probably necessary, however, it is widely true based on all of the stories that we read this semester. But in an attempt to keep the discussion focused and reasonably short, this will just include one knightly tale, that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Written in the 1300’s, it makes an apt comparison to modern knightly tales, like, for example, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Both are Arthurian tales and both involve, as luck would have it, Gawain; though Lancelot is more significant in The Mists of Avalon.
Basically, they are both knightly tales based on chivalrous and adventurous knights that go on a journey, meet a lady, and come back to the court with a slightly more cavalier view on life. The difference between the medieval and the modern, however, is that Bradley’s version delves deeply into the lives of all of the characters, each playing a significant role in the way the plot plays out, while Sir Gawain is fairly predictable and will come to what the audience can guess to be a decent and understandable ending.
Next, and important for this discussion, is the level of characterization and point of view that each of the stories possess.
Finally, I think that the stories can be distinguished by the tone in which they are written, or the tone that the author implies. Sir Gawain doesn’t begin with the seemingly traditional “now let me tell you the story of a knight” that most of the texts we have read this semester do; however, it does start with a conceivable narrator depicting a synopsis of the battle of Troy and the building of the Brighton land by the new King Arthur. This narrator is present throughout the story, and even when we are directly following Gawain’s actions, the narrator never pans in, closely in, to know the thoughts of Gawain himself. We do get enough to know, possibly, why he is acting the way he is, but even when he makes the choice to wear the green sash, the narration is never closely in his mind. Perhaps, and this is what I’ve gotten the impression of throughout all of our readings this semester, true first person / third person / omniscient narration was fully developed or understood until more modern or classical literature.
The Mists of Avalon is distinctly different in this case because the novel goes deeply into the minds of numerous characters, and the narrator, though mostly Morgaine, is more the presence of the reader within the story than an outside narrator telling the tale.
This is not a case of past tense, it is the case of making the narrator so much a part of the story that the reader feels involved in the action, like they are literally there watching as events take place. Sir Gawain never achieves this standard of narration, and I don’t mark it as a flaw on the part of the author, I just think it was the standard form of narration in medieval literature, and is something that, when reading closely, should distinguish the medieval from the modern.
Overall, I was unabashedly reliant and dependent on the modern translations. Otherwise I fear I would have missed more than just who the characters were and what was happening plot-wise. In fact, without the modern translations of our medieval texts, I would have given up reading them altogether, from frustration.
So, then, how did I get any reading and comprehension accomplished at all? Well, I printed out the translation and went word for word through the works. Perhaps (and probably) I missed much of what the story was attempting to accomplish, but I achieved my goal, I got the reading done and that was enough to make me feel proud. That in itself was an accomplishment.
Reading aloud was a disturbing problem without the translation.