Anne Wilson

I come from a family of literary people on my father’s side, several of them pioneers. One of them, a favourite cousin, introduced me to Shakespeare when I was nine, and I enjoyed the plays with her at Stratford every year. When I was eleven, my father was ill and asked me to read to him from Malory: without any didactic intention he opened another door on what were to be lifelong interests. At the time that I went to University, my grandfather spent his winters with us, and he and I could share our interest in the history of the English language. He had risen from a working-class background in Birmingham, England, to read English at Birmingham’s newly founded Mason College, and he taught in its English department for seven years before moving on in 1898 to become a pioneer in education. One of my cached papers on this website is about his life.

By chance, it was in my grandfather’s English department that my own research began, when I was engaged on a Ph D at Birmingham University in 1971. I was fortunate in having Professor Geoffrey Shepherd as my supervisor: it was he who persuaded me to make the medieval romances my area of work rather than linguistics, and he later supported my wish to investigate the curious plots I was finding in some of my texts.

I was at Manchester University for my first degree, and owe to its powerful English Language department of the 1950’s my preference for language study over literary criticism. But I didn’t want to stay on to do research at that time, and spent the later 1950’s and 1960’s living and working abroad. I spent a year in Finland teaching English and travelling, enjoying the languages of Scandinavia and taking a train to Moscow and Leningrad. Then, during a decade in Malawi with my partner Anthony, I became interested in the Bantu family of languages and attempted a description of the little-studied language Elomwe. Political and personal circumstances prevented me from completing this work – a matter much on my mind when I made inquiries at Birmingham University. By the time we arrived in Birmingham in 1969, living just up the road from the University, I had three children.

At Birmingham, I abandoned my original subject of Festivals in medieval texts when I became absorbed in the logical problems presented by many of the romances I was working on. It was the plot of ‘King Horn’ which caught my attention particularly. This plot had the appearance of a formal sequence of repetitions and yet it took its hero on an unnecessarily circuitous route to his princess and kingdom, and the motives of its characters were impenetrable; motivation in this plot seemed not just neglected but apparently determined not to make sense. The hero was a king’s son, orphaned by Saracens, who became a much loved retainer at the court of King Aylmer whose daughter fell in love with him. However, he was in disguise as a thrall – an unexplained handicap which he didn’t discard with this change of fortune. His companion Fikenild then told the king that Horn was planning to kill him and marry the princess. Horn was exiled and arrived at the court of King Thurston under the name of Goodmind, where he saved the king from an invader and refused the reward of the king’s daughter and kingdom. He could then return to Aylmer’s court bolder and become betrothed to his princess. After this he left to win back his father’s kingdom, and he then returned to find that his accuser Fikenild had built a castle and was planning to seize the princess from the cowed king. Horn killed him and married his princess. Horn was a hero who set out on his path to victory by putting obstacles in his own way and yet his being a thrall had an air of being an important step in his progress. He was accused of treachery at one court and then immediately played the opposite role at another under the name ‘Goodmind’ (‘Cutbeard’ in some King Horn texts). From that point he went on to win his princess and his father’s kingdom, but there was a further, absurd task to be carried out before the marriage. His accuser Fikenild became the traitor he had accused Horn of being and managed to build a castle and terrify King Aylmer. Horn killed him and then the marriage took place. 

An experience of psychoanalysis attracted me initially to these plots, and it was psychoanalysis which first suggested my experiment with the single point of view. My efforts at trying to make sense of the plots had become increasingly chaotic, and I decided one morning that if I was going to get order into my work I must make a decision about points of view. In the Freudian approach to dreams, there is only one point of view, that of the dreamer. These days, dreaming tends to be seen in terms of brain function rather than wish-fulfilment, as having something to do with rehearsing memories or neural programmes, but the Freudian approach was useful to me, because experimentation with the single point of view made the repeat scenes – the ‘move structure’ as I was to call it – clearly visible. I thought the single point of view and the step-by-step structure of each plot would lead to an ordered investigation, and this is what they eventually did, but they were to do so by slowly revealing plots of remarkable character, power and elegance which had never been suspected before and couldn’t be explained by anything we knew.

Psychoanalysis has certainly been concerned with unconscious conflicts, but it has never been interested in structure in unconscious activity: it has been concerned with the unconscious only in fragments as it intrudes on our conscious, social world, raising questions about such things as our motives and our mental health. By contrast, in the narrative texts I have been working on we can sometimes find a complete sequence of unconscious thought, and observe its operation without interference from our conscious minds. The sequence has no awareness of the presence of any other narrative in the text; consciousness is absent, and the sequence is alone in its own domain, dealing effectively with its own concerns in its own way. These were ideal conditions for my investigation into structure. The ‘language’ used by these narratives was unknown, of course, but the move sequences were my guide, and their step-by-step progression instilled into me the importance of addressing all the details in the order in which they appeared, while the single point of view ensured that I addressed each of these narratives as a product of living thought, active and creative, pursuing a purpose, finding means, selecting its materials. A world never dreamed of in psychoanalysis very, very slowly emerged.

At the early, Ph D, stage, it was my work on the plot of ‘King Horn’ which impressed the examiners. My external examiner was Derek Brewer, and his new publishing venture took the risk of bringing out my first book, Traditional Romance and Tale, in 1976. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to my project had it not been for his courage at that point. He thought that my work made more sense of the Horn plot than previous attempts to explain it, and that the material in my thesis should be published, with the helpful use of some better-known texts. He told me that if I couldn’t find another publisher, he would take the book on and this is what happened. However, the scholars didn’t accompany me in my exploration of the plot structures. They would become interested in ‘family drama’, a subject pursued by using interpretation on the basis of an established theory (psychoanalysis), while my continued investigation of the structures enabled me to work out new methods for a pioneering investigation into unconscious narrative.

Learning to address these unconscious structures would mean learning a new language, a language in which the deeper mind thought and talked to itself. My work resembled a deciphering job, one which required me to read the close relationships between the details in the order in which they appeared. The deciphering proceeded very slowly, because I had to learn everything from scratch, and it took me a dozen years to see just what I would have to do and whether it was feasible. The emerging structures taught me all I know about them. Their narratives advanced in a sequence of repetitive steps, which I called ‘moves’ though they were different in kind and much more frequent than those of Vladimir Propp. Each move depended on the performance of the previous move, and sometimes they were replays using surrogate characters to reverse the action of the previous move (as in the case of Horn’s Goodmind move). The key to the structure was the single point of view, notionally in the mind of the hero or heroine of the plot. As I worked on text after text, each having its own individual organisation, I refined my questions and methods of analysis, and my grasp of what these structures were doing altered. I needed to work on a great many texts, while only a certain number proved relevant to my investigation. I wasn’t aware in the early years that I was using models, these models being plots still undergoing decipherment themselves. Move structures make excellent models, and I was the only person to use them.

After my Ph D, I taught for the Open University and also in a further education college, and I continued my investigation in the Birmingham University Library. The most useful approach at this time was to give attention to texts in which I thought there might be two levels of narrative using the same material, one of them being one of my unconscious plots and the other the author’s conscious work. Jane Eyre was a key text taking me forward in this exploration, and it was also this text which prompted me to see how organised the unconscious plot was, as if it were performing a sequence of rituals using magic. I knew very little about magic at this time beyond the fact that it had to be highly organised, but as I looked into the subject more I came to a clearer view of how my plots might be using magic, even describing them as ‘magical’ before deciding eventually that it would be more helpful to emphasise their ritual nature. During this time, I still had some institutional support in the kindly help of Professor Shepherd and he guided me during my initial struggles with the Hamlet text of Saxo Grammaticus, a plot I couldn’t solve until I had had nearly twenty years’ experience with move structures. When he died in 1983, I lost a friend and adviser who would not be replaced: I would never again enjoy the advice and challenge of a fellow medievalist who understood so well what I was trying to address.

Every pioneering venture has its wilderness, and also its lifesaving strokes of good fortune. The Thimble Press, run by Nancy and Aidan Chambers, bravely rescued my second book, Magical Thought in Creative Writing, in 1983, and their publication brought my work to wider attention, and also enabled me to continue working. I was to have the further enjoyment of publishing articles with them in their journal Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books. Then Birmingham University’s Institute for Advanced Research in the Humanities (later, ‘in Arts and Social Sciences’) was founded, and I was elected a Fellow in 1985. Few independent scholars are so fortunate, because very few universities think of having such an institute, where local scholars not employed in a university can be given academic support.

After the publication of my second book, I was liberated to move on. I had found my publishing problems paralysing, and the nuisance was to haunt me throughout my career. Nobody could recognise my results, and no wonder: they had never seen anything like them before. As I set out on the next stage of my research, I gave up my teaching to give myself more time for it, a risk which could be taken because my partner was my warmest supporter and much more gainfully employed than I could be. I now took the bold step of moving into the speciality of the French scholars, and also into German, Swedish and Latin texts, and my progress accelerated. The challenge of the languages had to be confronted, and I wished the specialists would join me, but my reward was texts full of magnificent detail which helped me to refine my methods. During four exciting years, I studied the conflicts I saw between two levels of narrative in distinguished texts. I also discovered the value of working on groups of texts using the same plot.

Working on groups of texts using the same unconscious plot was one of the most significant developments as I was able to explore what happened to a particular plot in several different texts using it. A case in point was the five Lady of the Fountain texts, where Chrétien de Troyes gave us the original, Ivain, and it was followed by English, German and Swedish versions, and a Welsh version less close to Chrétien’s. These studies revealed that the plot always retained its structure, while the upper material might be worked or reworked by each author at a conscious level in a variety of ways. In the case of each of these texts, the result was a set of inconsistencies between the two levels, revealed at the upper level. Meanwhile, in the group as a whole, the inconsistencies were different from one text to the next. The potential implication of this was that, whatever the function of the lower level – ‘the ritual narrative’ – assuming it had a function, it appeared to be part of a system in the human brain, and highly conserved. The implications of this pointed beyond literature, perhaps even to physiology.       

At this stage, I also identified two radically new kinds of plot which I called the purification plot and the defended narrative. The Horn plot I now called a sovereignty plot, and the purification plot had a similar move structure, but one designed exclusively to remove anxiety. The defended narrative didn’t have a move structure to help me, and I didn’t grasp this structure until I returned to ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ for a new study fifteen years after my first attempt. My work always required my having a clear visual image of my plots, and the Green Knight plot came to me quite suddenly in a mental picture of an adventure surrounded by safeguards. The safeguards were constructed by narrative, the beheading game bargain providing a secure framework removing danger from the adventure with the lady. But my results were becoming increasingly extraordinary, making considerable demands on readers who had not had the gradual induction I had had into the emerging material.

The need to publish once again came in 1987, but this time an old friend, David Blamires in the German Department at Manchester University, was in a position to help, and my third book, The Magical Quest, was published by Manchester University Press in 1988. David had given me moral support and advice from the very beginning, and he recognised early that I was engaged on a real investigation. This was to be my last publication for many a long year, apart from one article, but the work continued, and I was giving papers at conferences and in English departments during this time. I was now enjoying the companionship of many fellow medievalists, however baffled they might quite reasonably have felt by my contribution. Eventually I was to meet Mildred Leake Day and her delightful Latin romances, all of them bringing fresh and original inspiration into my life. What I needed above all was the sustaining enthusiasm of people who also worked on the texts, and this is what Mildred has given me.

The research which led to my fourth book, Plots and Powers, set out at once to study groups of texts using the same narrative material. These groups had much to teach me, especially the Tristan Verse Romances where only some of the texts included a ritual sequence. My new models of the purification plot and defended narrative opened up new exploration, and I became more able to formulate a methodology for my results; another step forward was that I became able to express my findings in chart-form. The book was completed in 1994 and was rejected by a great many publishers before appearing with the University Press of Florida in 2001. This time, it was Peter Stockham, of the Staffs Bookshop in Lichfield, who, shortly before he died, saw to it that his academic contacts in the USA knew my book was looking for a publisher. During the long search for a publisher, Maldwyn Mills, professor of English at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, kindly agreed to be my reader, and he made important suggestions for the book, especially in relation to the Hamlet chapter. While publishers’ rejections continued, I could feel more relaxed about the possibility of my not being around to see the book through to publication. With the publication of Plots and Powers, the main body of my work had seen the light of day, and I could only feel grateful: mine was difficult stuff to market, in spite of the modern texts I was able to include.

Although it was published so late, the fourth book appeared before it was possible for me to settle on a working explanation for my ritual narratives. I couldn’t retire from the project before I could supply helpful suggestions, at least. Where would the narratives come from in the mind and why would they appear – only occasionally – in our literature? These were questions which I couldn’t find answers to on my own, but from 1995 I’ve had an invaluable colleague in John Cummins, who came across my second book in a second-hand bookshop on the Walls in Chester and contacted me. John Cummins was engaged on an investigation into how the evolving human brain dealt with the stress caused by its increasing ability to think and anticipate the future. Stress could have prevented further development, but the brain found ways of adapting its stress response. As we’ve worked on in our own fields, we’ve exchanged information and explored questions. John has suggested that my ritual narratives might be regular re-runs of long-past mental stages, and housekeeping algorithms operating at the edge between things staying the same and things changing. Such narratives would be an automatic process performing a function in the mind almost structural in nature, promoting stability in a complex and dynamic system such as the brain. John also introduced me to the inter-disciplinary Journal of Consciousness Studies and other literature belonging to the recent advances in our understanding of the brain, but it was he himself who provided the forum in which I could move forward to grasping where the answers to my questions probably lay. To enjoy the forum of the Journal, I would need the strong support of my colleagues which I still didn’t have. John helped me to prepare an explanation for my colleagues of where my work stood in relation to that of consciousness studies. What had interested him in my work was that it offered studies of structure in unconscious activity: I had identified and described unconscious thought structures, observing their non-rational progression to a non-rational conclusion. Recently John introduced me to Chris Nunn, who had just published From Neurons to Notions (2007), a liberating book offering a fascinating model of the mind. It helped me to think practically about the origins of deeper narratives and how they might emerge in texts. Another valuable colleague is Hugh Crago, psychotherapist and literary scholar in Australia, who has shown me parts of his forthcoming book on storytelling: his work is giving me a larger ability to think about unconscious, not necessarily structured, stories we live by.

This website is, in a sense, a fifth publication. Among my reasons for setting it up is the need to present my published work as steps in a single investigation, so that readers can see the whole project. There is the need, too, to answer important questions about the project. It is also time for another milestone, seven years after my last book, and, while I have done less research into texts, I have moved forward in my understanding of my findings. Unpublished papers, most of them presented at recent conferences, are published here. The invention of the Internet is one more piece of good fortune attending my investigation: I might otherwise have had to leave my final work unpublished.

Only one thing worries me now and that is that I have never had an opportunity to teach my working methods. I sometimes doubt whether anyone beyond my time would be in a position to use them with the discipline I have had to learn, and I hope I will be proved wrong. A colleague once asked me, “What do you do about the people who can’t see these things?” All I can say is that no one can simply “see these things”: we have to learn how to do so and the learning process is a slow one. A quick answer will be a wrong answer. But this is exciting work for anyone wanting to enlarge their understanding of the roles of narrative in human life.