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Journal of Literary Semantics

An International Review

Founded by Eaton, Trevor

Ed. by Toolan, Michael

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Volume 46, Issue 1


Unnatural narratology and premodern narratives: Historicizing a form

Eva von Contzen
Published Online: 2017-04-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jls-2017-0001


‘Unnatural’ narratology has been a thriving new field of narrative theory in recent years. What its various sub-fields share is that they are concerned, very broadly, with narratives that transcend the parameters of conventional realism. One of the field’s promises is that it can also account for earlier ‘unnatural’ narrative scenarios, for instance in ancient and medieval literature. Focusing on two recent publications by Alber and Richardson, this essay challenges the historical trajectory the movement envisages. Paying special attention to the influence of religion on premodern narratives and its implications for the concept of the unnatural, this essay argues that unnatural narratology is reductionist and adheres to a structuralist paradigm, and thus cannot do justice to the idiosyncrasies of premodern narrative forms and functions. An alternative approach to the unnatural as a dynamic form is introduced as an outlook.

Keywords: unnatural narratology; narrative theory; premodern literature; historical approach

In recent years, ‘unnatural narratology’ has developed into one of the most prominent and widely discussed fields of post-classical narratology. Rather than being a unified approach, ‘unnatural’ narrative theory consists of different strands, based on different definitions of the unnatural, and hence includes different emphases on its object of study and its aims. 1 These conceptual differences notwithstanding, ‘unnatural’ narratologists have drawn our attention to narratives and narrative elements that tended to be largely ignored by narrative scholars precisely because of their otherness in terms of both form and content. In what follows, I examine the impact that a decidedly historical perspective might have on the field of unnatural narratology, and explore what unnatural narratology may have to offer for the analysis of premodern narratives. In so doing, I concentrate on the historicizing agenda of two scholars involved in unnatural narratology, Jan Alber and Brian Richardson. In this paper I scrutinize their recent arguments towards opening up the field to premodern narratives. My analysis of their arguments will come to the conclusion that, in contrast to their panchronic treatment of premodern texts, narratives written before the eighteenth century challenge key aspects of the unnatural endeavour, especially when they are put within the framework of literary history. In my analysis, I concentrate on medieval literature, with an occasional reference to narratives from Antiquity. My critique will be rounded off by a suggestion as to how to render a historical approach to the unnatural more successful, namely by starting from the premise that narrative form is constant as well as historically and ideologically grounded.

1 The unnatural in diachronic perspective: An overview

I begin with a brief discussion of, first, how the unnatural is defined and, second, to what extent the divergent definitions are relevant for the analysis of premodern, that is, pre-Enlightenment, narratives. The proponents of unnatural narratology themselves describe their undertaking as a “multifarious, hybrid, and heteroglossic movement” (Alber and Heinze 2011: 9) that makes different perspectives and definitions a sine qua non. Broadly speaking, unnatural narratology aims at opposing ‘mimetic reductionism’: “unnatural narrative theory regularly analyzes and theorizes the aspects of fictional narratives that transcend the boundaries of conventional realism” (Alber et al. 2013: 3). The realist paradigm has indeed dominated narratological scholarship since the beginnings of the field, and it makes good sense to go beyond this unfounded privileging of one type of narrative in a systematic way. What all the definitions of the field take as their point of departure is ‘natural’ narrative, that is, in Fludernik’s influential definition, “spontaneous conversational storytelling” (1996: 13). 2 As a basic common ground, Alber et al. establish that “many theorists of the unnatural are particularly interested in texts that present extremely implausible, impossible, or logically contradictory scenarios or events” (2013: 3). 3 Shifting the focus to the sense-making processes, Alber and Heinze suggest as another viable general definition of their object of study “narratives that have a defamiliarizing effect because they are experimental, extreme, transgressive, unconventional, non-conformist, or out of the ordinary” (2011: 2). Nielsen argues that unnatural narratives “cue the reader to employ interpretational strategies that are different from those she employs in nonfictionalized, conversational storytelling situations” (2013: 72). Alber restricts the unnatural to “physically, logically, or humanly impossible scenarios or events” (Alber et al. 2013: 6), whereas for Richardson, the unnatural is characterized by a violation of mimetic conventions (2015: 4). I will return to the last two approaches in more detail below. Richardson identifies two main camps of unnatural narratology: one assuming an ‘intrinsic’, the other an ‘extrinsic’ approach. He himself, together with Nielsen and Iversen, belongs to the first group. Critics in the second group “do not deny that other psychological, cultural, or ideological work is also being performed” in unnatural narratives, but for them, the “primary importance lies in the narrative transgression” (2015: 18). Alber, according to Richardson, follows an ‘extrinsic’ approach in locating the unnatural also on a cognitive level. The unnatural can be conceptualized as an element of plot; as a break of the conventions of storytelling; and as an interpretative challenge. The proponents of unnatural narrative theory thus variously focus on the content of a narrative, on the narrative strategies employed, on the reception process, or a combination of any of these.

While the unnatural has attracted quite a number of scholars approaching the phenomenon across a range of media and modern genres, diachronic studies have been modest in number. In view of narratology’s general preference for post-seventeenth century material, this is hardly surprising, and it is even less surprising given that unnatural narrative elements seem to feature most productively in postmodern and experimental texts. 4 Recently, however, two monographs have been published that explicitly set out to diachronize unnatural narratology: Richardson’s Unnatural Narrative: Theory, History, and Practice (2015) and Alber’s Unnatural Narratives: Impossible Worlds in Fiction and Drama (2016). From the perspective of historical narratology, and in the context of calls for a thorough and serious diachronization of narrative theory, 5 these two books hold great promise. After all, as Alber puts it in The Living Handbook of Narratology, “the unnatural scenarios and events of postmodernism are not brand-new phenomena … There is no proper point at which the unnatural first enters literary history; rather, fiction always already involves the representation of impossibilities” (2014: 11).

Alber and Richardson share the view that the unnatural is not restricted to postmodern texts, and seek to historicize the field. Their approaches are, however, different since both critics build on their own previous work. Therefore let me briefly introduce their theoretical backdrops. Alber starts from the premise that cognitive parameters are by and large stable, and that thus a narrative mode such as the unnatural, which depends on cognitive processes, likewise persists over time. He posits

a historically constant notion of the unnatural: to my mind, the world we inhabit is dominated by physical laws, logical principles, and anthropomorphic limitations that are permanent and stable. I thus assume that phenomena such as speaking animals, animated corpses, coexisting time flows, and flying islands were as impossible in the past as they are today. (2016: 6)

Alber acknowledges that there are cultural and historical differences before introducing the vantage point of his analysis, which is “the position of a contemporary and neurotypical reader who has a rationalist-scientific and empirically minded worldview” (2016: 38). This approach, he argues, is “commensensical” (2016: 38). Even if some people in the past may have believed in, say, magic, it was as impossible then as it is today (2016: 40). Accordingly, magical thinking is a cognitive phenomenon that is constant, too (2016: 38–39). Alber’s main interest is in teasing out the meaning of the unnatural (2016: 41). In order to do so, he introduces nine strategies readers can rely on when making sense of, and in the process, ‘naturalizing’ unnatural elements in narrative texts. These strategies range from the blending of frames and evoking generic conventions to the “Zen way of reading” that involves reading simply for pleasure (2016: 47–55). The conventionalization of an unnatural element is one of the driving forces of creating new genres. Fables, for instance, are the result of this process. In fables, speaking animals no longer strike us as unusual or transgressive; the unnatural has been conventionalized.

Richardson’s definition of the unnatural is much narrower: he builds on Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization and is interested in the (potential) effects of the unnatural on the reader. 6 If an ‘unnatural’ feature is not, or no longer, perceived as strange by the reader, it does not count as unnatural. It is, rather, nonmimetic or nonrealist. A fable, for instance, is a nonmimetic text because it operates according to its own rules and bears no relation to “the canons of realism which it predates or ignores” (Richardson 2011: 34). Further examples include fairy tales and classical science fiction. The truly unnatural, then, is redefined as the antimimetic: “representations that contravene the presuppositions of nonfictional narratives, violate mimetic expectations and the practices of realism, and defy the conventions of existing, established genres” (2015: 3). At the same time, Richardson’s project is broader than Alber’s: he proposes a dual model that comprises both mimesis and antimimesis. This model, he argues, demonstrates the capaciousness of unnatural narratology in that it constitutes “a radical reconception of narrative that goes well beyond any existing paradigm” (2015: xvi). Like Alber, Richardson locates the unnatural fundamentally on the level of the content: “in specific events, characters, settings, and frames” (2015: 7). Experimental discourse is not unnatural if the events that are represented are mimetic; “discourse alone does not constitute the unnatural except in rare cases where the discourse actually affects the storyworld” (2015: 12), for instance in cases of denarration. Also like Alber, Richardson posits that the unnatural is constant over time and across cultures; it does not change (2015: 15). At times, it may become conventionalized through much repetition.

In one sense, Alber, and to some extent though less overtly, Richardson, engage in presentism, that is, they view and evaluate the past by means of modern standards and conceptions. I do not wish to criticize a presentist approach per se, which can be useful and has proven to be so in the field of medievalist studies in particular. Yet in the context of unnatural narratology, I take issue with it. My critique falls into three parts. First, I am going to question the concept of literary history as the history of the unnatural that underlies Alber and Richardson’s studies. I will argue that both are structuralist in disguise, and that they repeat problematic preconceptions of formal and structural analysis, in particular due to their exclusion of historical and cultural context. Secondly, I provide three examples that, I hope, will elucidate the shortcomings of the historical approach to the unnatural as it stands. I focus on the role and function of religion in ancient and medieval literature, especially on their instructive dimension, before I turn to saints’ legends and questions of genre. I close my analysis by suggesting a different approach to historicizing the unnatural based on Caroline Levine’s understanding of form as both constant and dynamic, and, crucially, always political (2015).

2 Hidden structuralism and unnatural literary history

In the field of medievalism, the study of ‘the medieval’ in later centuries, the approach called presentism is well-known, if not entirely unproblematic. Presentism, according to D’Arcens, “is widely understood to mean the practice of representing, interpreting, and, more importantly, evaluating the past according to the values, standards, ambitions, and anxieties of a later ‘present’” (2014: 181). Its counter-concept, pastism, assumes the closedness and thus total alterity of any historical period. The two poles constitute two opposing approaches in literary history also: the alterity or modernity of the Middle Ages translates as either a narrative of continuity or of radical difference and thus discontinuity. 7 Obviously the two poles are extremes, and there are many possible positions in between them. The distinction is useful here because it helps us throw into relief Alber and Richardson’s understanding of past literary practices in a literary historical perspective. For both critics, the unnatural, whether defined as impossible scenarios (Alber) or the antimimetic (Richardson), is constant. Even though Richardson does not link his definition explicitly to cognitive parameters, he implies that ultimately it is the continuity, or unchangeability, of human beings’ mind-set that leads to the production of texts that exhibit, over the course of several centuries, similarly ‘unnatural’ elements. In the course of their books, both critics then trace the unnatural from Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the postmodern period.

As presentist approaches, these analyses are highly successful. From Lucian’s A True Story to Beowulf and medieval romance, time and again the unnatural emerges as an important narrative factor, in all major narrative categories, such as time, space, and character. However, these examples are successful primarily because the parameter of the unnatural is the only one that is focused upon. In fact we witness the reductionism both critics perform under the aegis of the cognitive constant. For instance, Alber’s analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight concentrates on Morgan le Fay as an example of the supernatural. The fact that Morgan turns out to be behind the supernatural events, according to Alber, can help readers to “cognitively cope” (2016: 196) with the magic in the romance. Many other themes that are linked to the supernatural in the romance, and thus problematized, are not mentioned. These include the function of chivalry, Christianity, knighthood, and masculinity and femininity. 8 Likewise, Alber’s reading of Beowulf singles out Grendel and his monstrosity as an example of the fusion of the monstrous with the human, but does not discuss the question of Christian influences. Alber notes that “one gets the impression that the forces of good … and evil … operate in the background and speak through the figures; while Beowulf is guided by the Holy God …, Grendel is described as a death-shadow …, and Grendel’s mother is referred to as a bride from hell” (2016: 111). However, that this “background” is crucial to the depiction, and not least to the function, of the monstrous in the work’s wider context of the Christianization of England and the fraught relationship between Christian and non-Christian beliefs, is not taken into account. A key problem here concerns the omission of any contexts of transmission that considerably shape the form, content, and reception of a text. 9 Similar points of criticism could be adduced for Alber’s examples of Melusine, Sir Orfeo, Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale. 10

In Richardson, it is conspicuous that the majority of his premodern examples of the antimimetic is parodic. Aristophanes, Lucian, Rabelais, and Cervantes, four of the “highlights of antimimetic narratives over the centuries” (2015: 91) that Richardson singles out, all engage with other writers’ works and deliberately seek to transgress them. Aristophanes parodies Euripides, Lucian the Odyssey, Rabelais sixteenth-century religious and didactic literature, and Cervantes the romance tradition. 11 The proclaimed breadth of unnatural narrative here seems to be reduced to one narrative mode – that of parody or satire –, and it is not quite clear to what extent unnatural narratology is but a new name for this well-known phenomenon, which is essentially transgressive.

If we take these observations together, it seems to me that both Alber and Richardson are engaged in what is ultimately a structuralist project. This is remarkable given that scholars of the unnatural have explicitly distanced themselves from structuralism (see Alber et al. 2013: 6). The unnatural is one pole of a dichotomy which is imposed on texts, and its identification in various texts across and beyond contextual boundaries is the main endeavour. The cognitive backdrop is used as a means of legitimizing, and thus partly clouding, this return to a critical practice that harks back to the beginnings of narratology. I exaggerate: both Alber and Richardson not only identify the structural patterns of the unnatural, they also provide illuminating analyses, in particular when discussing the effects of the unnatural on the (modern) reader and the processes of sense-making. Yet these interpretations, especially since they often remain text-internal, cannot outbalance the overall structuralist agenda: literary history as the history of a structure or form that remains constant. As a medievalist, I have difficulties in subscribing to this view: even though certain narrative elements and forms have stayed similar, and have been used in similar ways over centuries, they are never constant in the sense of remaining truly the same. The (historical, cultural, societal, etc.) contexts change, and with them the functions and calibrations of a form or structure. I will revisit this aspect in my closing remarks.

It is pertinent, moreover, to recall that Richardson introduces “a dual or oscillating conception of narrative, one mimetic, the other antimimetic” (2015: xvi) as the basis of his unnatural narratology. The oscillating, or interactive, aspect of this model seems to be based on the fact that the mimetic and the antimimetic often go hand in hand, and rely on each other. Here, too, I see further evidence of the structuralist agenda. Notwithstanding the dynamic aspects of the approach, ultimately the mimetic functions as the benchmark against which the antimimetic is measured. The antimimetic becomes the narrative counter-strategy to realism. We are left, then, with a binary opposition to which narrative, and the history of narrative, can be reduced.

Alber in his historical approach goes one step further: he assumes the unnatural is not only a constant, but also a teleological development. He regards premodern unnatural examples as prefigurations of postmodernism’s unnatural elements. Postmodern literature, in which the unnatural is particularly rich, becomes the climax in this narrative of progress: “the impossible scenarios and events of postmodernism were anticipated by earlier narratives, through which certain modes of the unnatural have been conventionalized, that is, turned into basic cognitive frames” (2016: 9; my emphasis). Alber’s chapter 3, for instance, then “deals with unnatural characters in postmodernist novels and plays as well as their anticipations by supernatural figures … in earlier literature” (2016: 104). However, I would argue that unless there are (direct or indirect) intertextual links, premodern narratives do not ‘anticipate’ later works. Anticipation implies both teleology and value judgement. In this literary history told through the lens of the modern reader, premodern texts are also pitted against postmodern ones, with the latter being regarded as superior. Again, I want to caution against such sweeping assumptions and advocate a more nuanced differentiation. Postmodernism is but one narrative mode prevalent in contemporary literature, just as there were various kinds of literature in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. From different linguistic groups to different reading communities, and considering the confluence of popular and elite texts and audiences, textual production in premodern times was vast and diversified. Walter Map, in the twelfth century, is writing in Latin, for a learned audience that is clearly quite distinct from the readers who were enjoying the anonymous romance of Gawain. Both these texts are again very different from The Canterbury Tales, in terms of genre, audience, and not least dialect, even though Geoffrey Chaucer and the Gawain-poet were contemporaries. 12 Against this backdrop, it becomes problematic to postulate a small selection of examples as the precursors of postmodernist, unnatural narratives.

3 The challenge of religion

As I have mentioned already, one blind spot in Alber and Richardson’s studies consists in the role and function of religion for premodern narratives. Another way of conceiving of this context would be in terms of a particular world view: one that posits a transcendental influence on the world. This is different form a supernatural influence. Alber mentions the transcendental in one of the strategies which readers can rely on in order to familiarize or naturalize the unnatural: “Sometimes we can make sense of impossibilities by assuming that they are part of a transcendental realm such as heaven, purgatory, or hell” (Alber et al. 2012: 377; emphasis in the original). The transcendental then becomes a legitimate realm of the unseen /unknown, legitimate, that is, only against the framework of a particular ideology. Alber, however, restricts the transcendental to a specific location such as hell and to the unnatural temporality that may result from a transcendental setting. 13 For a period as deeply imbued with religion as the Middle Ages, however, God’s presence and workings were assumed to be relevant to any aspect of life, at any time and any place. I do not wish to simplify the complexities of the Christian religion in the medieval period; rather, I would like to draw attention to their assumed existence and to the influence they exerted on every type of cultural production. 14

Temporality is an especially prominent case. Following Carolyn Dinshaw (2012), one could argue that medieval society was inherently heterogeneous and asynchronous in its temporalities, because earthly and heavenly, agrarian and biblical, historical and ecclesiastical timeframes were simultaneously at work. Such a conglomeration of partly overlapping, partly divergent, partly clashing notions of time are typical of the Middle Ages in which the secular and the sacred cannot be separated clearly. This inseparability manifests itself in the various notions of sanctity, the cult of the saints, discourses of gender, law, and individual conduct, politics, public and private practices of devotion, as well as in literary genres. 15 A very similar connection, based on a different understanding of the divine, already applied to ancient societies: “there was no sphere of life (or death) in ancient Greece that was wholly separate or separable from the religious: the family, politics, warfare, sport, knowledge …” (Ogden 2007: 1). The Greeks even lacked a term for religion, so inextricably linked was the religious to every aspect of life. 16 Ancient tragedy is perhaps the most prominent example of how closely religion and art were connected, but cult, ritual, and myth go hand in hand also in ancient comedy, the ancient novel, and epic. 17 The transcendental, then, only makes sense as a category of naturalizing the unnatural in contexts in which the overall ideology is not clear or varying. In all other cases, the seemingly unnatural elements (the suspense of time in heaven, for instance), belong to the ideological framework of religion (e. g. medieval Christianity). They may strike us as odd from a modern perspective, but for their time and literary genres, they are the default case; there is no need to naturalize.

One way of conceptualizing the unnatural in religious contexts would be the question of what is possible or impossible. If we take the laws of physics as the benchmark, the question will be answered quite differently from the assumption of a god’s intervention in this world. Medieval society would certainly assume, in line with the biblical phrase, that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37) and apply different measures to what is considered ‘unnatural’. I can only emphatically underscore Wolf’s statement that “the natural and unnatural are not stable, transhistorical, and transcultural essences but historically and culturally variable” (2013: 136). Let me provide an example: in the late medieval popular romance The King of Tars (early fourteenth century), the Sultan of Damascus, a heathen, marries the daughter of the King of Tars, who is a Christian. 18 Their different faiths give rise to war, even before the marriage; eventually, the couple is married after the bride, even though she remains a Christian at heart, agrees to venerate the idols. When she falls pregnant, she gives birth to a lump of flesh. After the Sultan, hoping to change their unhappy fate, has converted to Christianity, two miracles occur: the lump of flesh turns into a human child, in addition to the Sultan’s change of his skin color from black to white.

The tale is fundamentally concerned with complicated and problematic issues of both faith and race, making a case for the superiority of the Christian belief. The final change is achieved through baptism: the Christian sacrament infuses the lump with the Holy Spirit, turning chaos into order. The unnatural change, and ultimate ‘naturalizing’, of the monstrous child is a motif one finds frequently also in chronicles and saints’ legends: that which gives form to the flesh is faith. The motif can be linked with the medieval bestiary and Physiologus traditions, too, according to which bear cubs are born shapeless and licked into form by their mothers. The romance compares the formless child with an animal, adding a further dimension to the conflicts the narrative thematises. Also, Aristotelian physiology comes into play, which holds that it is only the father (the semen) who can give form to matter; matter being the feminine, weaker substance in the process of procreation. Thus, all of the ostensibly impossible scenarios The King of Tars features are motivated and justified by the ideological overlay of the Christian framework in which the Sultan’s religious and racial otherness are appropriated. The impossibilities function as means to several ends: they demonstrate Christian superiority, they show God’s power on earth, and they impose order on a disordered–and because of its otherness dangerous–world. At the same time, the romance is firmly situated within contemporary notions of physiology and biology, thus hinting at a ‘scientific’ explanation as well.

The manifold meanings of the impossible in The King of Tars call into question the notion of unnaturalness. The lump of flesh is ‘unnatural’ in the sense of ‘against nature, monstrous’, reverberating with notions of the demonic and evil. The transformation miracles may be called ‘unnatural’ in the sense of ‘logically impossible’; yet neither of these meanings encapsulate the complexities of the tale, that is, the discourses it engages with and the religious context that functions as a blueprint. Miracles, for instance, are ‘supernatural’ because they are triggered by God. From a post-Enlightenment perspective, we may categorize them as ‘unnatural’ because not possible according to the laws of logic and physics, and Alber’s model reader would certainly hold his position. Yet for the medieval audience these would have been categorized as ‘natural’ because the ‘supernatural’ formed an integral part of what was conceived to be ‘natural’. Even though the aforementioned definitions of the unnatural as it is used in unnatural narrative theory suggest an objective approach, 19 the unnatural, like the ‘natural’ from which it is set apart, is historically grounded. Hence ‘the’ unnatural is a fiction. We can only ever analyze what was conceived of as ‘unnatural’ in a certain period, in a certain genre. At the same time, the status of knowledge and of what counts as ‘scientific fact’ is much less certain than the premises of unnatural narratology would suggest.

Finally, let me return to an aspect I have mentioned in passing in my brief account of The King of Tars: the overall function of the romance. Beyond uses as entertainment, though these should not be neglected, the text clearly drives home the message that the Christian faith is the only true one and that it is superior to heathen beliefs. My point is not that the message is particularly noteworthy or new (it is not); rather, I would like to dwell on the fact that medieval narratives – in the bulk – are not l’art pour l’art, but purpose-driven and function-oriented communications. The omnipresence of didacticism and instructive or edifying purposes further complicates our understanding of what ‘unnaturalness’ may entail for pre-modern narratives. The significance of a narrative’s functions, or its effect, is also crucial for Antiquity. Aristotle, in his Poetics, maintains that the narration of something impossible, which is essentially untrue, can be justified if it serves the end which it has achieved, just as something impossible though probable is to be preferred to something that is possible but unconvincing or improbable. 20 To be sure, unnatural narrative theory is also concerned with the effects of antimimetic narrative elements, yet ‘effect’ is taken to be a much more local concept than what an ancient or medieval audience would have understood as the purpose of a narrative. 21 If the didactic function of a text justifies its extreme or strange narrative elements, we are dealing with a special case of the ‘unnatural’ – a case that so far has gone unaccounted for by unnatural narrative theory. In Alber’s list of readers’ naturalizing strategies, we would need a new category: unnatural elements that are conventionalized because they serve a didactic or instructive function. This category may well be period-specific, certainly with respect to premodern narratives. If there are indeed period-specific strategies of making sense of the unnatural, however, then the cognitive model that underlies the strategies is clearly also historically dependent. This is a further reason why we need to historicize the cognitive approach. Notwithstanding the basic cognitive structures in the human brain, how these structures are used and functionalized depends on the cues and contexts which historically specific practices of reading and writing offer and necessitate.

4 Genre and narrative impossibilities

As a final aspect, I turn to genre. This is arguably also the most important factor when it comes to scrutinizing why readers do not take issue with certain potentially disruptive or transgressive narrative elements – the elements have become naturalized or familiarized. As already mentioned, Alber suggests that one of the cognitive strategies readers have at their disposal in order to naturalize unnatural elements is indeed the appropriation of genres. The unnatural, according to Alber, is “the major driving force” behind the evolution of genre: by developing new cognitive frames and scripts, based on narrative disruption and transgression, and by conventionalizing these new frames, writers and their audiences create new genres (2011: 64). This is an attractive argument, but it raises the question of how to measure cognitive processes of appropriation and naturalization. The only access, and evidence, we have is the narrative practice at stake, and the changes that occur. The danger of such an approach is that it makes assumptions about readers’ and writers’ minds irrespective of the historical circumstances in which a text was produced and received. Religion, to my mind, likewise has a different bearing on genre conventions, especially since it is always already inextricably linked with the production contexts of a work. As Fehrle and others have shown, stories about superheroes also assume a set of storyworld laws and encyclopedias which differ significantly from those operating in the real world (2013: 240). But here we are talking about a generic framework in which, conventionally, readers accept that certain rules of physics and logic are suspended and substituted by a new set of parameters. The religious worldview, however, is much broader and permeates not only the world of the text but in fact spans, and connects, storyworld and real world.

Saints’ legends are a case in point: their changes over time, in terms of genre, fall short of an explanation in terms of a cognitive approach. The legends of holy men and women were one of the most prolific genres throughout the medieval period. The stories regularly featured impossible scenarios: the saints perform all sorts of miracles, they are larger than life in their actions and perseverance in view of the hardships and torture they suffer, and they often return after their deaths to help believers and avert evil. There are dragons, talking animals, shape-shifting demons, marvelous temporalities and spaces; the protagonists have impossible strength, foreknowledge, and visions. From the very beginning, medieval writers were aware of the tension that arose between the Christian appropriation of the supernatural on the one hand and the outright fabulous on the other, which was a thin line in the first place. A curious case can be found in the Golden Legend, composed by Jacob of Voragine in the thirteenth century, which provided the source for much of the vernacular hagiography produced all over Europe. The legend of St. Margaret contains a famous episode in which the devil, in the shape of a dragon, attacks her and attempts to devour her. When she makes the sign of the cross, the dragon bursts open and releases her. Jacob adds: “What is said here, however, about the beast swallowing the maiden and bursting asunder is considered apocryphal and not to be taken seriously.” 22 Yet the passage is included in most versions of the legend; clearly the graphic effect of the scene was judged to be more important than the doubts of its authenticity. Similarly, John Capgrave, in his Legend of St Katherine (mid-1440s), expresses his anxiety in view of a number of miracles associated with Katherine’s death. At her execution, milk is said to flow instead of blood; her body is carried to Mount Sinai by angels; and from her grave, an oil flows which has healing powers and, when filled in lamps, burns for a lifetime (5.1898–1964). Capgrave acknowledges that there may be “swech merveyles” (‘such marvels’; 1966), but he quickly adds that he lacks any authority to be sure about them, hence he will not criticize the account lest people may accuse him of being misguided. 23 These and other cases, then, are intriguing from the perspective of how ‘unnatural’ elements operate in an environment of doubt. They raise questions about narrative instability and its effects on the audience, especially in such an orthodox genre as the saint’s legend.

At the same time, these and other supposedly ‘unnatural’ elements took their justification from the Christian framework, and as stock elements of the genre had become naturalized. From the sixteenth century onwards, the genre changed drastically, losing its marvelous character, and ultimately fell into oblivion. The driving force behind this development was the Reformation with its critique of the spectacular and its denouncement of the unhistorical as it manifested itself in the writings of the saints. I would like to argue that we have here in fact a case of the reversal of naturalization: following the critique of the Protestant reformers, the narrative elements that had long been conventionalized as the common stock of hagiography were rendered improbable, impossible, un-conventional and thus untenable as Christian literature. 24

In parallel to these developments, we can witness a solidification of genre elements: as Lupton (1996) has suggested, in the post-Reformation period and the decline of the saint’s legend, the topoi of hagiographic discourse were transposed and subsequently turned into a set of images or symbols. We find these images – torture scenes, the idea of the relic – in Shakespeare, for instance, where Catholic values are played off against Protestant ones. After a phase of defamiliarization, brought about by the Protestant critique, narrative elements had become conventionalized anew and been re-appropriated for new, secular contexts such as Shakespeare’s plays. Crucially, these topoi do not constitute a genre of their own. In a case like hagiography, an ahistorical cognitive approach is insufficient for encompassing the complexities of genre development that occur in a specific historical context. A similar process of re-appropriation can be observed with Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the fourteenth century, when in France the so-called Ovide moralisé was composed. This version of the tales of the Roman gods and goddesses allegorized the mythological tales for a Christian audience by providing extensive theological commentaries. By that stage, the metamorphoses were clearly very much regarded as ‘unnatural’ because of their pagan background; hence the strategy of the medieval translator and compiler was to re-appropriate the tales as Christian narratives, adding the allegorical mode as a means of familiarization, and thus explain away the discomforting pagan elements.

Due to the high degree of naturalization and the audience’s familiarity with the impossible as key features of a genre, premodern narratives may be said to be relatively conservative in terms of the effects triggered by the unnatural, especially in comparison with the many experimental narrative features we encounter in modern and postmodern literature. Metalepsis and anthropomorphized narrators (speaking animals and objects), monstrous beings and miracles, as well as unlikely spaces and temporalities are usually well integrated into the respective genre (fable, epic, saint’s legend, romance, and so forth) and do not strike readers as particularly ‘unnatural’ or noteworthy. 25 In such cases, they would count as nonmimetic in Richardson’s sense. The degree of ‘strangeness’ varies depending on how ‘strange’ something is for the characters on the plot level or whether it is flagged as ‘strange’ by the narrator. The absence of such indication is noteworthy, too. Again it is important to stress the impact of more general discussions and values attached to narratives and their ‘strangeness’ in a specific period.

The key, to me, seems to be the didactic dimension of premodern narratives and the question of their usefulness. Since Antiquity, as will be recalled, narratives were categorized according to three kinds, based on their relation to truth: historia, argumentum, and fabula. Historia was about things that actually happened; hence texts belonging in this category were regarded as true. An argumentum, which could be used as part of a speech in court or in a comedy, might not actually have happened, but could have; it referred to plausible events and hence was believed to be equally true. Fabula, however, denoted mere tales, which are not true exactly because they are impossible or unnatural. 26 Against this background, myth presents an unmarked case of strangeness that required no explanation or justification. It was well-established already in ancient Greek philosophy that mythological tales belonged in this third category. Epic, by contrast, was categorized in the first group: as a narrative about historical events in the past, epic poetry was ‘true’ in its relation to reality. The fact that epics usually feature gods and superhuman activity did not contradict the generic distinction: the gods in epic poetry may support or compromise a mortal, yet the decisions and choices made by the protagonists are ultimately not brought about by supernatural powers. 27 Mythological stories are included in similes, or used to illustrate a point, but they do not form part of the plot. Hence the supernatural sphere, as an allegorical mode, functions as a means of legitimizing and authorizing the claims the narrative puts forward. 28 In the wider trajectory of the didactic dimension in premodern narratives, allegory functions as a strategy of the unnatural. This would, in Alber’s terms, qualify as a further naturalizing strategy (a special case of the allegorical reading strategy), one that is period-specific and related to the didactic, instructive potential of narrative texts. 29

5 Conclusion: The unnatural as the history of a form

Throughout this article, I have taken issue with the recent attempts at historicizing unnatural narratology. Given that historical and diachronic approaches to narrative are still relatively rare in narrative theory, at least in its English-speaking branch, it is all the more crucial to pay careful attention to these developments. The unnatural is an exciting new category of narrative transgressions that challenges realist paradigms, and it has undoubtedly proven its usefulness for postmodern narratives. For premodern narratives, however, the theory is less successful. I see the danger of repeating some old problems: the bias of taking (post)modern narratives as the benchmark; the assumption of the non- or ahistoricity of the parameters applied (the unnatural as a constant); a relatively narrow corpus of premodern texts; largely text-internal analyses; and the identification of (repeatable) structures irrespective of their embeddedness in historical and cultural contexts. Also, it seems to me that we witness here the limits of a cognitive approach: it assumes sameness where there is in fact difference. Context matters – notwithstanding the fact that the basic perception of being in the world as humans, in the way our bodies work, has not undergone major changes. It may not be wise always to historicize; yet if one historicizes, then one should acknowledge that which is period-specific. This is not an end in itself but necessary in order to understand how narratives construe their meaning.

Despite the problems I see when it comes to the analysis of premodern texts and their supposed ‘unnatural’ status, unnatural narratology can and should prompt us to return to the analysis of genre as a powerful generator of meaning and creative processes, and explore anew the links between representation and the represented. Further studies of premodern narrative texts are urgently needed to establish how the unnatural is employed and functionalized. The historical perspective can be particularly fruitful in ascertaining how, when, and why the parameters of mimesis change. This requires a careful consideration of the historical circumstances in which ‘strange’ narratives and narrative patterns originated and circulated, what makes them strange, how strangeness and estrangement are defined and perceived in different periods, and how readers naturalize or familiarize this strangeness.

In order to do justice to ancient and medieval narratives and their place in literary history, let me suggest an alternative approach to the unnatural. One problem that pertains to unnatural narratology in general is, as we have seen, the different and divergent definitions of what constitutes the unnatural in the first place. What all approaches share is the focus on form: whether defined as antimimetic, physically and logically impossible, or exhibiting effects of estrangement, the unnatural is conceptualized as a specific manifestation of narrative form. It is thus, in Levine’s words, “an arrangement of elements – an ordering, patterning, or shaping” (2015: 3; emphasis in the original). Levine’s broad definition of form brings together five usually distinct ways of describing how form has been treated in literary and cultural studies: form as constraining, diverse, overlapping and intersecting, travelling, and doing political work. Levine subsumes all of these modes of form in the concept of ‘affordances’ and urges us to ask what a specific form is capable of doing: “rather than asking what artists intend or even what forms do, we can ask instead what potentialities lie latent – though not always obvious – in aesthetic and social arrangements” (2015: 6–7).

I suggest that the unnatural lends itself to be approached in a similar way. Unnatural narrative elements are likewise “both political and aesthetic, both containing and plural, both situated and portable” (2015: 6). Crucially, the unnatural is but one narrative form among many others, with which it inevitably overlaps and collides. The transgressive quality of the unnatural is one of its affordances, but one that is not always realized or recognizable in a particular context (as in Richardson’s nonmimetic texts). Levine stresses that in her approach, form is active, form does work (2015: 9). The portable affordance of form is then but one feature: forms travel over time and through cultures (and thus remain constant in certain respects), but in doing so they acquire new affordances that are dependent on the new contexts. Thus some features of unnatural narrative elements may remain constant over time (such as narrators addressing their readers directly, talking animals, or superhuman abilities), yet their other affordances – their meaning in a particular culture, the intertextual links to other texts and media, their degree of strangeness and so forth – are subject to change. Such an approach to the unnatural as a form would do away with the ahistorical, structuralist tendencies we have seen in Alber and Richardson.

The unnatural appears to be a form that is fundamentally characterized by its dynamic, active potential to trigger a range of effects of estrangement, or to teach its audience, or to induce laughter and wonder, or to convey the messages of a minority. The latter is an important aspect Richardson discusses in the final part of his study, entitled “Ideology”. In chapter 7, he scrutinizes “the ways in which U.S. ethnic, post-colonial, and feminist authors have created unusual and unnatural forms” (2015: 144). Richardson argues that these writers are particularly prone to using unnatural elements – such as reconfigurations of the temporal order of narratives, the fragmentation of characters, or the juxtaposition of alternative scenarios – in order to get their messages across. Minorities and marginalised groups evidently employ unnatural narrative elements for political purposes, drawing attention to their marginalisation and startling their audiences. While Richardson is concerned with the implications for a comprehensive poetics, I see a further fruitful connection to Levine’s approach. She emphasizes that form is never neutral. Forms impose order, and this order is indicative of, and implicates, a political dimension (2015: 22). Levine’s project is ultimately to disclose and challenge existing structures, outlining possibilities for change. This could be taken up as the starting point for a serious diachronization of unnatural narrative elements. One of my main points of criticism has been the fact that so far, religious world views are unaccounted for in Alber and Richardson. This means, by extension, the omission of any kind of ideological framework that may give rise to unnatural narrative elements. I would argue that the politicization of the unnatural is not only indicative of the groups Richardson mentions but in fact deeply imbued in the unnatural itself. The transgressions unnatural narrative elements induce are never neutral; they partake in discourses of intertextuality, critique, power, value judgement, and not least appeal to, and meddle with, the readers’ affective affordances. As a political strategy, the unnatural is never an end in itself, and hence absolutely requires that we as critics pay close attention to the historical and cultural circumstances within which any unnatural narrative operates.


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  • 1

    See e. g. the introduction by Alber, Iversen, Nielsen, and Richardson (2013); and Alber and Heinze (2011). 

  • 2

    See e. g. Nielsen (2013) for a critique, as well as the paired articles by Fludernik (2012) and Alber et al. (2012). 

  • 3

    This tentative definition leaves room for individual interpretation; it thus captures both the ‘narrow’ and the ‘broader’ understanding of the unnatural (cf. Alber and Heinze 2011: 2). 

  • 4

    Wolf has focused on metalepsis as an unnatural narrative feature and uses Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion from the Metamorphoses as a case study, drawing attention to the cultural and historical dependence and change of that which is defined as ‘unnatural’ (2013). Richardson (2011) briefly refers to Aristophanes’ plays, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and some of Shakespeare’s plays as examples of the unnatural, while Nielsen (2011) adduces the example of The Golden Ass by Apuleius. In his entry from the Living Handbook of Narratology, Alber mentions The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Indian Vedas, the Sanskrit Ramayana, the Old Testament, Aesop’s fables, and medieval romances as precursors of the unnatural. Alber is the only unnatural narratologist to have consistently given thought to medieval and early modern material and the continuity of the unnatural. In “Unnatural Spaces and Narrative Worlds” (2013), he considers the construction of narrative space in terms of unnatural parameters, taking the Old English heroic epic Beowulf as one example. In an article from 2011, Alber offers “A New View on Genre”, discussing in some detail the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood, and Walter Map’s twelfth-century miscellaneous Latin work De Nugis Curialium. See also chapter four in his 2016 monograph. 

  • 5

    For calls for the diachronization of narratology, see Fludernik (2003) and von Contzen (2014). 

  • 6

    See Shklovsky (1965). 

  • 7

    See the 1979 special issue in New Literary History 10(2) on “Medieval Literature and Contemporary Theory” as an important early publication on the topic. See also Biddick (1998) for the presentism/pastism distinction; with respect to the continuity/alterity debate and German medieval literature, see Glauch (2010). 

  • 8

    See in more detail e. g. Brewer and Gibson (1997); Dinshaw (1994); Kinney (1994); Putter (1995); Woods (2002). 

  • 9

    See on Beowulf e. g. Cohen (1999); George (2010); Gwara (2008); Orchard (1995); Williams (1982). 

  • 10

    See Alber (2016: 111–112; 120–121; 180–182; 196–197). 

  • 11

    See Richardson (2015: 77; 93–100). 

  • 12

    See Walker and Treharne (2010) for an excellent introduction. 

  • 13

    One example Alber adduces is Beckett’s play Play and its circular temporality: “A very common way of explaining this unnatural temporality is to argue that the play is set in a transcendental realm, a kind of purgatory without purification, in which the three characters are doomed to relive the events of their past lives … in a continuous cycle as a form of punishment” (2016: 53). 

  • 14

    See e. g. the articles in Halverson (2008) as a starting-point. 

  • 15

    See e. g. Tanner (2009) on faith in the Middle Ages; von Contzen and Bernau (2015) on sanctity and literature; and Newman (2013) on the crossovers of the sacred and the secular. 

  • 16

    See Bremmer (1994) and Burkert (1985) in more detail on ancient Greek religion. For the Roman context, see e. g. Beard et al. (1998) and Feeney (1998). 

  • 17

    See in more detail e. g. the contributions in the two volumes edited by Bierl et al. (2007). 

  • 18

    The romance is extant in three versions (Auchinleck MS, Simeon MS, and Vernon MS). For the Auchinleck text, see Perryman (1980). Cf. also Gilbert (2004). 

  • 19

    Here I am inclined to agree with Klauk and Köpke’s initial observation that the thesis ‘Many narratives contain unnatural elements’ “looks trivially true, and given some convenient notion of ‘unnatural’ it probably is” (2013: 79). Even though Klauk and Köpke go at length into refuting many of the unnaturals’ arguments, mainly from a philosophical point of view, their criticism does not extend to the status of the unnatural and its historical or cultural grounding; in fact, their critique is remarkably ahistorical. 

  • 20

    See sections 1460a–1460b. 

  • 21

    For Alber, ‘effects’ fall under the heading of the sense-making strategies unnatural narratives activate in the readers (see 2013); Phelan analyzes them in terms of reader engagement, triggered by unnatural narrative features (2013), similar to Nielsen, who refers to “interpretational strategies” specifically cued by the unnatural (2013: 72). These, however, are all micro-effects. See also Alber et al. (2013: 8) where it is suggested that “unnaturalizing readings” lead to meanings that may defy explanation or resolving. 

  • 22

    I quote from Ryan’s translation of the Golden Legend (1993: 369). 

  • 23

    The references are to Winstead’s edition of the text (1999). 

  • 24

    John Foxe’s influential Protestant martyrology Acts and Monuments (1563, 1570, 1576, 1583) is quite different from medieval saints’ legends, most notably in its downplay or omission of the marvelous. 

  • 25

    See e. g. de Jong (2009) on metalepsis in ancient Greek narrative. Wolf, too, notes that Ovid does not draw attention to the impossibilities of the tale of Pygmalion (2013: 130–131). 

  • 26

    Cf. Rhet. ad Her. 1,13; Cic. Inv. 1,27; Quint. Inst. 2,3,4. 

  • 27

    In the Odyssey, for example, the fabulous is reserved for Odysseus’ tales about his wanderings, or as part of the communication of the gods in Homer, but, crucially, never told by the heterodiegetic, ‘epic’ narrator but by characters only. Cf. Feldherr (2002: 167). 

  • 28

    Richardson excludes allegory from his categories; he claims that it is neither nonmimetic nor antimimetic: “instead, it embodies structures of ideas in narrative form” (2015: 12). 

  • 29

    It is interesting to note that fables, which by definition transgress realistic parameters, are primarily a didactic genre; their ‘unnatural’ elements are justified by the didactic messages they convey. It is these messages that take precedence, not the narratives themselves. 

About the article

Published Online: 2017-04-07

Published in Print: 2017-04-01

Citation Information: Journal of Literary Semantics, Volume 46, Issue 1, Pages 1–23, ISSN (Online) 1613-3838, ISSN (Print) 0341-7638, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jls-2017-0001.

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