Thursday, July 27, 2017

Reviews from the Greenwood: Melissa Ridley Elmes on Douglas Gray's Simple Forms (2015)

Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. ISBN 978-0-19-870609-0. Hbk, $95.00. 300 pp.

Reviewed by Melissa Ridley Elmes
Lindenwood University

As the title suggests, Douglas Gray’s Simple Forms is modeled on and expands the work of the mid-twentieth century German literary theorist Andre Jolles in Einfache Forem (1930). Gray’s book takes as its point of departure the argument that contemporary English literary studies often overlook or, at best, marginalize the “vast substratum of oral literature” lurking beneath the surface of extant literary forms (2). First reminding the reader that “popular beliefs and oral literature are alluded to or mediated through the learned or the relatively learned” (4) Gray points out that “it is misleading to suppose that medieval popular culture is totally opposed to or separate from the culture of the learned” (4) – an argument that has gained critical support recently in scholarly works such as Richard Firth Green’s Elf Queens and Holy Friars. [1]

After an Introduction in which he describes the decline since the mid-twentieth century in scholars’ attention to folk and oral culture studies, Gray makes a case for a definition of “folk literacy” that bridges the written and oral traditions, and considers what to call texts that derive from such a tradition (fairy tale, tale of wonder, international popular tale, or folk tale, the term he ultimately settles on). Gray turns in Chapter Two to a description of folk culture, which he charmingly deems “a loosely organized ramble with many pauses and some digressions” (19). From there, the chapters that follow focus on a specific genre or set of genres, taking as a starting point an English title or set of titles, and then showing how the English work demonstrates affinity with other similar works from the Continental folk tradition. Ultimately, Gray’s sophisticated approach highlights ways that these folk and oral traditions might be viewed as “the building blocks of learned and sophisticated literature” (2) — that is, how writers transformed the simpler folk tales of the oral tradition into sophisticated literary texts. The genres examined are Myth, Epic, and Heroic Lay (chapter 3); Ballads (chapter 4); Popular Romances (chapter 5); Folk Tale (chapter 6); Sage, Tale, and Legend (chapter 7); “Merry Tale” (a broad category including all forms of medieval comic literature including burlesque, parody, and the fabliau); Animal tale, and Fable (chapter 8); Proverb (chapter 9); Riddle (chapter 10); Satire (chapter 11); and Songs and Drama (chapter 12).

Although this book’s subject is folk literature, it ventures far beyond the most common literary genres, motifs, and subjects in such studies; therefore, the outlaw tales that typically take center stage in the study of popular folk literature in the medieval period are among the many, rather than the featured, works examined. Scholars interested in the outlaw tradition will find chapter 4 (“Ballad”) of particular interest. Pages 78-87 comprise discussion of the outlaw ballad tradition, including shorter consideration of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robyn and Gandeleyn, and an extended study each of Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley and the Gest of Robyn Hode. There is a brief discussion of a Robin Hood proverb in chapter 9, and of the Robin Hood plays in chapter 12. Beyond this, outlaw tales are mentioned in passim, but not emphasized. From a comparative standpoint, on the other hand, scholars interested in considering the relationship between outlaw tales and other forms of popular literature will find this book to be a treasure-trove of possible avenues for further research.

Simple Forms is a highly ambitious undertaking that could have turned out disastrously in the hands of a scholar less well-versed in its various components; fortunately, with Douglas Gray at the helm wielding his exceptional learning lightly, earnestly, and with characteristic humor, the product is a study that should produce important new lines of inquiry and reinvigorate folk studies in a literary context. This book will be of great use to students of medieval literature at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, early-stage scholars thinking through the development of courses emphasizing genre and literary and cultural transmission, and anyone interested in how the literature that we have inherited can show us glimpses of the many acculturations that have gone into its development.

[1] Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvanis Press, 2016).

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