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Mueller, Alex, Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance.

Mueller, Alex, Translating Troy: Provincial Politics in Alliterative Romance (Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture), Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2013; cloth; pp. 253; R.R.P. US$69.95; ISBN 9780814212219.

This original, well-written, and well-argued study is the latest to challenge the monolithic view--popular when I was in graduate studies in the 1970s--of the so-called 'Middle English Alliterative Revival'. Alex Mueller first grounds his study, which is as much political as it is literary, in a thoughtful and original rereading of Guido delle Colonne's Historia Destructionis Troiae, which he argues is the foundational text for an alternate reading of the import of Troy and its fall to medieval England's image of itself. While for Chaucer and his courtly contemporaries, the fall of Troy established the foundation for their own civilisation--England was the New Troy--the alliterative writers expressed marked scepticism about such received wisdom, and resisted any linear view of history that saw their country's direct descent from fallen Troy and its glorious successor, imperial Rome, as something in which to glory. If anything, the alliterative writers, taking their cue from Guido, offered a provincial critique of the wisdom behind such courtly claims to an imperial legacy for England.

Medieval England knew Guido's text through the alliterative Destruction of Troy, which would, in turn, prove the source for the ways in which the authors of other alliterative poems would read the destruction of Troy; that reading finds not a glorious genealogy upon which to expand but a moral lesson warning against usurpation, siege, and broken vows. Mueller applies this general reconsideration of the glory that was not Troy to specific poems that reflect the generic possibilities embraced by English alliterative romance: John Clerk's Destruction of Troy, The Siege of Jerusalem, the alliterative Morte Arthure, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Clerk, positioning himself as an authority intent upon telling the whole story of the fall of Troy, challenges his readers, initially predisposed as they are to revel in the alleged glories of their Trojan ancestry, to question the true value of such a chequered legacy. The Siege of Jerusalem advances the Trojan narrative to its incorporation as the founding myth of the Roman Empire. Building upon the accepted critique of the poem for its anti-Semitism, Mueller also argues that the notable examples of anti-Semitism within the poem show the poets disgust with the cruelty of Rome, and elicit sympathy for the plight of the Jews under the harsh rule of their imperial conquerors.

The alliterative Morte Arthure establishes King Arthur as the continuation of the so-called glory that was Rome. But the portrait that the poet offers of Arthur is complex. Juxtaposing signs of empire with scenes of cruelty, the poet sees in Arthurs rise further evidence of the inseparability of imperial authority and the death of the innocent. Mueller concludes his examination of alliterative texts by focusing on the Trojan frame in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The central Arthurian tale of the testing of Camelot, Mueller argues, is ultimately disconnected from that frame and obscures the images of death, destruction, and conquest that the frame summons up.

In sum, Mueller argues that the provincial alliterative romances offer a markedly different and totally pessimistic view of England's Trojan legacy. That view stands in sharp contrast to, say, that of Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde, which is indifferent to Trojan history because it is more concerned with courtly love than with military history. Just as the alliterative poets asked their readers to re-engage with their concept of the role Troy played in their history, so Mueller asks us similarly to re-engage with our expected assumptions about the poems that he discusses. In doing so, Mueller has given us an important study that should go a long way toward encouraging further studies and reassessments of these always challenging (in several senses of the word) literary texts.

Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University
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Author:Harty, Kevin J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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