What kinds of problem attract my attention to a text?
Curious, unexplained decisions made by the characters have bothered me most, and the most glaring problems I find have to do with motivation. The characters are not really characters in a ritual plot, but figures moved around by the single point of view in the performance of rituals, so they can act in unexpected ways and, if an author has superimposed characterisation, they can seem to act entirely out of character without there being any explanation in the text. The plot’s use of its characters for the performance of rituals can also give an appearance of inexplicable departures and delays, especially where progress towards victory is ‘held up’ by rituals for the removal of guilt and fear. King Horn and the Ipomedon texts, included on this website, exemplify these problems clearly.
Where an author has superimposed an overlay with moral themes, the amoral behaviour of the ‘characters’ in the ritual plot may throw up moral contradictions and the hold the plot has over the author’s mind prevents there being appropriate comment or treatment. This problem is particularly clear in the ‘All’s Well’ texts, where the heroine’s behaviour is more visible in the overlay than usual; by contrast, it isn’t a problem in the case of Jane Eyre, where the violent events at the end of the novel are never suspected of being the heroine’s arrangement. In Jane Eyre, it is the move structure which becomes obtrusive, interfering in the work’s presentation as a novel. Jane Eyre’s departure from Thornfield, followed by a period in the wilderness and an arrival at Moor House for a replay, is the classic move construction of departure, wilderness and arrival, and not a coincidence at all in the plot.
Ritual punishment can have an odd appearance in a text. I illustrate it on this website in ‘The Golden Bird’, where its oddness first introduced me to the ritual punishment. Why did the narrative élan of the adventure and triumph have to be followed by a different kind of tale of theft and a traitor’s death? Ritual punishment and penance play a more striking role in purification plots, such as the handless maiden tales, where they need to be gruesome to be effective and the punishment is lifted when the plot has completed its work. As in the case of ‘The Golden Bird, the ‘role’ of the punished tends to be played by ‘characters’ connected with the evil, but other than the hero or heroine of the plot. Purification plots are evidently necessary to the deep mind, and those that have appeared in texts are enjoyed, no matter how gruesome.
In many texts containing a ritual plot there is a suggestion that the hero or heroine has committed a serious crime, while this is not given the treatment or comment that it needs; sometimes authors introduce a minor misdemeanour by way of explanation, with incongruous effects. A feature in such texts is the accusation, which offers some guidance to the critic: the narrative sets up an accusation of treachery or theft and then works to remove it, as can be seen in King Horn.
The planet Neptune was discovered when astronomers observed deviations in the orbit of Uranus, and in my problem texts I guess at there being a hidden force exerting an influence on the author’s text. So categorising the problems is only practical up to a point. They vary from text to text, arising from the particular characteristics of each plot on the one hand and on each author’s treatment. They are most obtrusive where there are two powerful narratives in a text – a powerful overlay and a powerful ritual plot – sharing the plot’s characters and other material without being aware of each other. Some texts show no glaring problems while others show many, and, in the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, scholars have found gaps in explanation, incongruities, duplication, cracks and disconnectedness throughout the text. Typically, the problems in Sir Gawain intrude most at the end of the text, where the plot employs more powerful rituals. Why is the secular Green Knight represented as hearing a confession, and why does Gawain make a confession to the Green Knight when he has already gone through an orthodox confession to a priest? Why, too, does Gawain confess to covetousness and treachery when his confessions to cowardice and lack of fidelity are all that is needed? (For the scholars’ questions in detail, see The Magical Quest, pages 192-200.)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight turned out to be one of the most challenging texts of my investigation, and I didn’t arrive at a solution for fifteen years. So I have placed it last among the six examples on my home page, while King Horn comes first. Two modern texts are among my examples -- the Grimm’s story ‘The Golden Bird’ and Jane Eyre. I have found a few good examples in modern texts, but most of my examples are medieval and medieval texts usually have the most to tell us.