The Fall of Man: The Major Masterplot in Literature of the Middle Ages.
Repeated Narrative and Plot Types.
In the last class we discussed how certain plots repeat throughout literature, and are common as a motif, even up until today. I discussed primarily the narrative of the journey and the quest. This is one of the most popular “masterplots” in literature. Particularly in a knight’s romance, like Sir Gawain, the journey and the quest is essential. Gawain journeys beyond Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. In most journey and quest narratives, the protagonist — after a series of encounters, trials, and hardships — returns home, having gained some sort of knowledge about his / her self and the world. It is important to note that as literature grows more modern, particular literature into the twentieth century, the journey and / or return home is usually negative, degenerate, pessimistic. For example, in most of the narratives in which a soldier leaves home for war in the 1900s (WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, etc.), his / her return is usually dark, as in Hemingway’s soldiers who feel a sense of hopelessness and betrayal.
Masterplot is a term used by literary studies to describe any deep, underlying narrative structure that has repeated over a long period of time and in many different literary pieces. Masterplots can be simple to complex. For instance, there are many stories with the masterplot of a young boy who experiences something that serves as an initiation into adulthood.
Many masterplots derive from sweeping social /political / religious world-views passed down through the centuries. American literature developed the fairly new masterplot in the 1800s of the individual who can accomplish anything. This has come in literature to be known as the “Horatio Alger” story: the idea that, even if you are dirt poor and have seemingly no hope of a better future, through hard work and luck you can become a millionaire, or a leader, or somehow famous and anointed. Barak Obama, in many ways, has stirred the imagination of America because of the masterplot that, in this country, anyone can become president.
In the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance, almost all of the masterplots have a Judeo-Christian context. Many of the Christian masterplots remain strong in literature today, although in more secularly disguised forms. The many narratives of the Old and New Testaments have inspired and perpetuated variations of their stories. For instance, notice in class how a student pointed out that Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight in the beginning of the poem resembles the story of David and Goliath.
The Genesis Story of the Fall of Man and Original Sin
There is perhaps no masterplot more prevalent in literature of the Middle Ages than the Fall of Man. In fact, the Genesis stories all remain powerful masterplots for literature today.
One of the most common motifs that repeat in narratives of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is the Genesis story of the Fall and Original Sin. Adam is the ultimate “archetypal” character in that he is the “first man,” and he gives into Eve’s temptation. Together, Adam and Eve break God’s one and only rule in the Garden, and as a result, they lost paradise and their consummate contact with God. Generally, narrative theology and literature interprets Adam and Eve’s fall resulting from their lack of trust in God. Instead of having trust and faith in God, they trusted only themselves.
Various Narrative-types that Reflect the Fall.
Literature has reworked the Fall as a masterplot repeatedly up until today. It can be seen in numerous contexts and themes in narratives:
- The protagonist tempted by some representation of “forbidden fruit,” giving into temptation, losing some form of a “paradise.”
- The notion of the temptress, or “evil woman” throughout literature, referring back to the archetype of Eve.
- The story of a protagonist who is a good person, has some position of authority, power or well-being, and through some flaw, trusts only him/herself, or has too much pride, or can’t see beyond a particular interest, and has a fall.
- Any narrative that shows a movement from an original situation that is pure, or good, or innocent, or has a sense of well-being, and then turns into something impure, adulterated, ,guilty or unsettling. The romantics loved poetry and narratives about how the growth from childhood to adulthood is like a fall, or losing paradise.
- Any narrative in which the protagonist diverts his / her faith in something other than God; or in which the protagonist does not fully or adequately have faith in God when he / she should.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very much emphasizes the story of the Fall and Original Sin. The audience to the poem in the 1300s would have readily recognized all of the Biblical symbols and motifs in the poem, and they would have seen the narrative as a sort of illustration of the Genesis story of the Fall.
Entry filed under: British Literature.