“Fantoum & fairye”: visions of the end of Arthurian Britain

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This article explores the role of the phantom in relation to legendary historical constructions of place. It takes as its focus Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter SGGK) and the first component romance of the bipartite Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn (hereafter Awntyrs A). Unlike the other English Gawain romances, which typically trace the extension of Arthur's insular kingdom to the north and the west through the deeds of his knight Gawain, these are concerned not with the growth of Arthurian power but its decline. In their imaginings of insular imperium and its limits, both romances draw on a dominant medieval discourse explicitly concerned with place: political prophecy. A long tradition informed by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1138), and its prophetic seventh book, the Prophetiae Merlini, political prophecy in England is for the most part concerned with the movements of insular political power rather than religious revelation. It is, however, ascribed to a number of prophetic authorities alongside Merlin, which include among their number saints and even the Virgin Mary. The phantoms with which this article is concerned function as another distinct category of prophetic authority, on some occasions held to be synonymous with the fairy, and on others aligned with souls returned from purgatory. This material presents a salient reminder of the porous division between the sacred and the secular in Middle English romance. I suggest that both romances make use of longstanding purgatorial systems of representation, which provide a model for the interventions of phantoms in imaginings of the movements, and the limits, of earthly power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-174
Number of pages25
JournalArthurian Literature
Early online date17 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jul 2021


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