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Vision of Dreams and Fractured Narration

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A dream, as we conceive of it in modern thought, is considerably different to the dreams which featured in Middle English dream vision poetry. Where today we might generally think of one’s dreams as an abstract, introspective reflection of individual and personal psychology, the dream in the Gawain-poet’s Pearl functions differently. As A.C Spearing explains, ‘For the Middle Ages, the explicitly visionary element in Scripture must have provided a major justification for a literature of dreams and visions’, implying that the dream is not just a reflection of one man’s psychology, but that the dream, like the Bible, offers lessons or understanding to its readers. Furthermore, the dream realm into which the dreamer enters is totally unfamiliar and strange to him, and the resulting narrative is an unstable one which he cobbles together in order to try and understand his experience himself. If we look upon ‘narrative’ as the way in which experiences are made sense of in literature and communicated to readers, I will argue that the readers of Pearl are not required to forego narrative completely, but instead are asked to trust in one that is spontaneous and perhaps unreliable, as they enter the unfamiliar dream otherworld alongside the narrator, sharing the same ‘familiar world of everyday value and assumptions’ as him. The ‘bulk of the poem’, as Ad Putter discusses, is ‘the debate between the Dreamer and the Pearl-maiden,’ and it is the dreamer’s narrative of this which exposes his continuous misunderstandings about the nature of loss and the afterlife, exposing the limitations of earthly knowledge and body. As mortals, the readers operate on the same level as the dreamer, and his narrative is an attempted process towards retrospective understanding of what the Pearl is attempting to divulge. This process is one that continuously trips throughout, then ultimately fails when the dreamer physically crosses a boundary and wakes up. Such a narrative constitutes the reader’s sense of incompleteness and frustration at the end of the poem, wishing, like the dreamer , that they could know or see more, but realizing through his reflective mistakes and limitations why this is so, bettered by understanding of God’s workings.

It becomes clear to the readers that it is at the point that the dreamer falls asleep and earth is left behind that they are being led through the poem by an unsure narrator through an unfamiliar landscape: ‘In auenture ther meruaylez meuen./I ne wyste in bis worlde quere bat hit wace’.[64-5] The word ‘auenture’ in use here has been the subject of much scholarly discussion, as in Middle English usage it seems tied more closely to the notion of accident or chance rather than epic quest or journey as we would define it today. From the outset of the poem then, this word signals that the narrator’s dream is not of the ordinary kind which the readers may experience every night, but one which the readers are as lucky to have stumbled upon as the dreamer; a dream of promised importance. This impression is made all the more clear by the dreamer’s navigation through the unfamiliar landscape of his dream, which, mimicking the experience of earthly dreams, begins very slowly, as the dreamer becomes absorbed in the visual beauty around him. He takes from line 75, when he notices the woods, ‘holtewodez’, all the way to line 98 to actually reach them, ‘bat fryth ber Fortwne forth me ferez’, forcing the readers to share in his dream-like meander. What is also particularly interesting in this distance is the syntactic change it produces, from ‘holtewodez’ to ‘fryth’. Whilst ‘fryth’ is translated as ‘wood’ by both Casey Finch and the Middle English Dictionary, ‘holtewodez’ translates slightly different in both to ‘forest’. Such a difference, though subtle, instigates the reader’s distrust in the dreamer’s narration as what he perceives does not remain stable. The stanza following on from line 98 is doubly confusing in its sense of movement, where the dreamer describes first being led ‘forth’ [98] by fortune, then venturing forth, ‘I welke ay forth in wely wyse’,[101] and finally, wandering over to the river, ‘I wan to a water by schore’.[107] What becomes clear from this linguistic confusion is that both the narrator and the readers following him are situated in a realm totally separate from earth, and in the minute stumbles of the dreamer’s narration, the reader is nudged towards an expectation that mortal senses and perceptions cannot be trusted in the experience of the vision.

However, saying this, the opening part of the narrative is also somewhat misleading in the suggestion that the dreamer, upon falling asleep, leaves his physical body behind him: ‘Fro spot my spyryt ber sprang in space;/My body on balke ber bod’.[61-2] Here, the body and spirit are severed by even separate lines, with the word ‘sprang’ implying a sharp, quick movement. In spite of this, it becomes clear as the dreamer attempts to describe his vision that his bodily limitations cannot be shaken off, preventing both his own, and the readers’, full access to the landscape: ‘More of wele watz in bat wyse/ben I cowbe telle bag I tom hade,/For vrbely herte my3t not suffyse/To be tenbe dole of bo gladnez glade.’[133-6] The stanza beginning with these lines sets up linear disappointment, where the dreamer’s narration offers a brief glimpse of the otherworldly landscape, ‘More of wele watz in bat wyse’, only on the next line to falter, ‘ben I cobe tele bag I tom hade,’ realising he is unable to communicate his experience. This occurs again a couple of lines later where the dreamer sees paradise, ‘Forby I bobt bat paradyse’[137] then asserts that it is out of reach, ‘ouer gayn bo bonkez brade.’[138] Nick Davis, on the narrators in the Gawain-poet’s work, comments that they ‘attempt to make their experiences understandable to themselves by piecing them together in ways which they find convincing but which also prove to be wholly or partially inadequate.’ This appears to be what is happening with the dreamer here, as he struggles to make sense of his own experience through narrative, thus making it even more difficult for the readers to make sense of it. As aforementioned, we as readers quickly learn that this incomplete access to the landscape of the vision is a fault of the dreamer’s bodily limitations, where he acknowledges his ‘vrbely herte’[135] as a culprit, then is held back from crossing the river by mortal fear, ‘for wo ber welez so wynne wore’.[154] It is the dreamer’s unshakable mortality that betrays both him, and renders him able to only partially narrate to the readers.

Where the dreamer might not be blamed for mere inhabitancy of a mortal body, misunderstandings arise from sources other than simply this. The dreamer presents to us an interaction between himself and the Pearl in which she attempts to explain the workings of heaven to him, whilst he, in Davis’ words, ‘attempts to reach an apprehension of what the pearl now is to him’. This understanding or apprehension is limited to both the dreamer and the reader not only because of the body, but also earthly knowledge and logic. As Casey Finch points out in her introduction to the poem, ‘the heavenly order […] is undoubtedly structured like the worldly’, a fact that makes comprehension difficult for the dreamer in several parts of the poem, creating yet more narrative ‘trips’. For example, the Pearl tells the dreamer that she has been taken up as a queen of the Lamb amongst many others, and the dreamer’s earthly hierarchal understanding makes this almost impossible to comprehend: ‘bou lyfed not two ber in our bede […] Bot a quene! – Hit is to dere a date.’ The dreamer, attached to his earthy logic, cannot believe that the Pearl, who was only two years old on earth, could have possibly risen to the status of queen. As readers sharing the same mortal logic as the dreamer, it is not difficult to empathise and share in his confusion and difficulty in understanding, once more creating a sense that the narrators, and thus the readers, are not quite grasping something important.

However, there are, I will argue, levels at which the dreamer’s narrative actually pushes the reader to a more complete (though not full) understanding of the vision that the narrator cannot reach himself. Though, as I have argued, the dreamer’s narration of his experience is the vehicle of understanding for the readers, a point of separation arises where the dreamer feels the pangs of grief where the readers do not. At the start of the poem, the Pearl has already been lost; the readers have no emotional investment or attachment to the Pearl as a figure on earth, where the dreamer clearly does. This fact divides understanding where the dreamer cannot accept willingly that his Pearl lives on in the kingdom of heaven, fixated on her absence from earth: ‘Sir, be haf your tale mysente,/To say your perle is al awaye,/ bat is in cofer so comly clente’.[257-9] The Pearl explains that although she does not exist on earth any longer, her spirit lives on in the kingdom of heaven, which the dreamer cannot seem to accept because of his feelings of personal loss. This explanation, however, is nothing new to the readers who are likely familiar with the Christian doctrine that one is given everlasting life in heaven, so it is at this point that the readers are able to loosen their bonds to the narrator and see his misunderstanding as a product of grief. Furthermore, by the point at which the dreamer is about to attempt crossing the river, the readers are already aware that this is misguided action because of this, and the dreamer’s narrative alters slightly to emphasise his mistake: ‘I bobt bat nobyng mybt me dere/To fech me bur and take me halte/And to start in be strem schulde non me stere’.[1157-9] Though the dreamer has been retrospectively narrating throughout, it is at this point that total clarity comes forward where it has not been apparent before. The dreamer expresses regret at his foolishness, ‘bobt bat nobyng mybt me dere’ understanding in his recollection the mistake he made in crossing this physical boundary. Whilst the narrator recognises this transgression, the reader is pushed to a better understanding of why he wakes up than he has himself. Right up until the very end of his narration, he misunderstands the principles and laws of the heavenly kingdom, for instance, musing on which pearl looks the most cheerful, ‘Tor to knaw be gladdest chere’,[1108] a linguistic failure to see all the queens of the Lamb as equal. Still attached to the vehicle of the narrator, the readers are prevented from going any further in the vision when the narrator wakes up. However, it is their lack of personal grief clouding judgement that allows them to see and understand a little further and more clearly than the dreamer can, though it is ultimately clear, as Ad Putter express, ‘Heaven in Pearl […] proves inaccessible to human reason’, whether that is in the narrator or the readers’ case.

Throughout Pearl, the dreamer attempts through narrative to make sense of his vison, which takes him to alien places and presents him with ideas that he finds difficult to comprehend. Because the narrator, in Davis’ words, ‘spontaneously organizes the experiences of his dream’, this leaves the readers in a precarious position. Like him, they have a mortal body and share his earthly experiences and feel ‘forever excluded’ from the poem’s ‘finalizing meaning’, as they frequently are allowed only to comprehend and see what he sees. It is only the readers’ distance from the grief of the dreamer that pushes them a few inches forward in grasping the logic and workings of his vision, though both as mortals themselves, and attached through narrative to the mortal dreamer, they are at the end ‘kaste of jythez bat lastez aye.’[1198]

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Vision of Dreams and Fractured Narration. (2018, May 17). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from
“Vision of Dreams and Fractured Narration.” GradesFixer, 17 May 2018,
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