My working theory is that I can learn about Laȝamon and his process by rewriting his text. The process is steadily illuminating aspects of his work that I would not notice if I were approaching it from a literary critical/historical/academic perspective.
One of the major differences between Laȝamon as a writer and his modern descendants can be seen in the way he retells the story of Rowena. What he did, and what I feel obliged to do, are very different.
Medieval authors can appear inconsistent. Sometimes this might be the result of inaccurate copying. Sometimes, however, I think it points towards a much more interesting difference in their practice.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ambrosius launches into a diatribe about the sins Vortigern has committed. It’s excessive in length. It’s also inaccurate. What he says doesn’t match up with the story we’ve just read. Ambrosius accuses Vortigern of betraying both Constantine and Constans, the father and brother of Ambrosius and Uther.
The second charge is indisputably true. But nowhere in Geoffrey’s text, describing the brief career and death of Constantine the father, is there any mention of Vortigern. Constantine is knifed by a Pict.
If this diatribe had been written by Robert Browning we might see this as a subtle way of suggesting hatred has unhinged Ambrosius. But inconsistency seems not to have bothered Geoffrey or his subsequent translators.
Wace, following Geoffrey, has Constantine stabbed by a Pict, who had been in his service but had begun to hate the King: ‘I do not know why’. But when he comes to Vortigern’s death, Wace repeats the accusation that Vortigern has slain both father and brother. He refers to it twice. Once ‘in text’ and once in words that he gives to Ambrosius. Had he flicked back a few pages, he could have checked and seen that this is wrong.
Laȝamon does the same. He expands and dramatizes the initial treachery, giving the Pict a name and lines to speak. He describes the assassination. Wace’s ten lines became 21 long lines (or 42 short lines in Madden’s edition).
The scene obviously caught his imagination. He makes no mention of Vortigern.
When he gets to Vortigern’s death, Laȝamon leaves out the long speech. No Robert Browning effect here. Instead, Ambrosius makes a grim joke about keeping warm. Then Laȝamon follows Geoffrey and Wace in repeating the accusation that Vortigern killed both father and brother.
Either they couldn’t check what they’d read, which is unlikely; they had forgotten what they had written, which in Laȝamon’s case seems improbable, or it wasn’t important.
Considering why it wasn't important, points towards an essential difference between Medieval and Modern writing
What are the differences between Early Medieval and Modern Writers part 2
Geoffrey, Wace and Laȝamon all seem to make the same mistake in allowing Auerelius or Ambrosius to accuse Vortigern of having murdered A’s father.
If you have an obvious contradiction in a story, then the writer might have overlooked something, was doing something very clever, or was simply inept. When you have three writers ‘making the same mistake’ something different is happening.
So backtrack a bit and begin with 2 well-known examples.
What our three early medieval writers didn't do.
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago and Roderigo move onto the stage. They are in the middle of an argument.
It’s a simple, effective trick to make us imagine that the conversation started before the play did. And that illusion is an essential part of modern, post-Shakespearian, assumptions about how fiction works.
This illusion, that characters are more than just words on a page and can be known as real people, reached it critical apogee when A.C. Bradley asked ‘How Old is Macbeth’ or ‘Did Lady Macbeth really faint?’ This, and similar questions, have been the subject of subsequent critical derision: epitomised by L. C. Knight’s famous ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’ but they are a testament to the power of the illusion that Lady Macbeth is a ‘real’ person.
If they are no longer considered ‘credible’ critical questions, both New Criticism and Post Modernism having rendered them suspect, they are exactly the kind of ‘character background’ modern writers are encouraged to develop while writing their novels.
Pace the critics, we remember Lady Macbeth because she does seem real. Literary conventions and learnt reading practices combine to lead us to wonder why she does what does and why she is the way she is. The illusion is that something happens between the Banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene, to bring about such a radical change in her state of mind. She has a life off stage that we can somehow access and discuss. Or argue about.
As I’m rewriting the story of Vortigern and Rowena, I feel obliged to treat her as a coherent character, with a biography that stretches back before the story starts, and comes to some kind of conclusion in her death. Childhood? Upbringing? Hengist pitches her at Vortigern but how did she feel about that? What does she even think of Vortigern? What did they talk about on their wedding night? How did they talk, given that they don’t speak each other’s language? What is her relationship with her father? Does she have any kind of relationship with Vortigern beyond the contractual sex of their marriage? And if she does, how is it affected by her murder of Vortimer?
What our Writers Did.
None of these questions seems to have interested Wace or Laȝamon as they revised Geoffrey. And I think that suggests something different about their attitude towards the story.
Rowena is not a ‘fully rounded literary character’ in the modern sense, whose biography we might expect to follow to its conclusion as though she were a biological entity. She is a proper noun accumulating verbs and nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. All that is important is what she does, relevant to the downfall of Britain.
She has no life off-stage. She only exists in the words that describe her speech and actions. Bright shards of incident and dialogue. This is strictly true of modern fictional characters, but the illusion of modern fiction is that these are just the visible parts of the life and a reader can fill in the gaps. Modern writers work at making that illusion work.
In the ‘Brut’ there are no ‘gaps’ for the audience to fill. Asking ‘Why is Vortigern evil, what motivated his career before he is first mentioned’ is an irrelevant question. He is his reported actions and nothing more.
It follows from this that there is no character development and no sense that characters are able to learn from their ‘experiences’.
Laȝamon's imagination sees Rowena in focus in the scenes where she is important, but that’s all. She has no opinions, no feelings, and no attitudes that can be explored. She is a noun, the subject, object, even indirect object of sentences. It’s not that her death happens ‘off stage’.
There is no ‘off-stage’. She doesn’t die. She never lived. She is simply no longer part of the linguistic event.
And this, to return to the previous post, explains the ‘inconsistency’. It’s not inconsistent because the process doesn’t acknowledge, let alone aspire to consistency. Constantine’s story exists only in the words and phrases used about him at a particular stage of the text: not in the past of the story. Not five pages back. There is no coherent ‘biography’ to disrupt. The rhetorical and emotional possibilities of Aurelius’ anger take precedent.
Which is strange. And different. And has multiple implications for the way a story works.
And leads towards a confrontation with Laȝamon’s attitude towards /use of numbers.