When I was studying Engineering we had a paper called “Structural Concepts”. The brilliant lecturer, Jose Retrepo, was able to strip out all the complex maths and very simply demonstrate how you could get a pretty good idea about what was going on in even very complex buildings by breaking down a problem into parts, by looking at alternate solutions to see possible different solutions, and so to reach an understanding of the fundamental behaviours in operation without touching a calculator. That kind of approach is the absolute cornerstone of my daily practice – without his insights, I don’t see how I could actually use all the fancy-pants analytic tools which were the bulk of my study.
The more complex an idea is, the harder it is to strip it down to its essential moving parts and figure out what’s really going on. The smarter you are, the less necessary it seems to fill in all the little bits’n’pieces of working that form a conclusion. That’s why another very excellent lecturer we had gave no partial credit, and no marks for the correct answer. Either every necessary step of the working was both present and the correct answer was reached, or you didn’t get the mark. A hard lesson, but a good one.
Well, I’m about to make a sweeping generalization about literary criticism – these people are talking about something very complex, and they’re very smart. In a lot of cases, that doesn’t seem to be doing me much good. Here’s a pretty typical example of some critical text, from Rowland, Susan. “The Wasteland and the Grail Knight: Myth and Cultural Criticism in Detective Fiction.” Clues 28, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 44–54.
What is known as Golden Age detective fiction is more readily identified with the myth as a successful quest. Here the wasteland may well be returned to a paradise on the achieve-ment of the detective’s discovery. On the other hand, paradise is, explicitly in this self-conscious, ironic form, a place of imaginative desire rather than social realism. For example, the Golden Age includes Dorothy L. Sayers, who shows the consequences of her grail knight, Lord Peter Wimsey, questing in the feminine with erotic and social relatedness to the waste-land. He discovers the high price of connectedness by his inability to cut himself off from the sufferings of punishment.
Now, I’m pretty sure that I know what she’s going on about: do you? Actually, I lied, I’m not sure that I know what’s she’s going on about at all. I can make some educated guesses, but they are just that – highly, extremely, educated guesses, based on 6 months of reading critical material on detectives day in and day out.
There are a number of problems I have with this paper and its method of construction. The main thing is that she has deeply sublimated the concept of the detective story as a mythic experience and hence the detective as a mythic hero. She’s swiftly aligned the concept of “Grail Knight” with “Lord Peter Wimsey”, and characterised his detective activities as “questing in the feminine” and the English countryside as “waste-land”. I’d like to see some kind of close textual support for all of those things, some kind of glimpse into the reasoning which draws those conclusions on.
To me, the concept of the Grail Knight and the detective seem straightforwardly oppositional. The quest for the Holy Grail was fundamentally about a rejection of society in favour of a higher purpose, a religious purpose, and in order to complete the quest the knight had to overcome largely internal problems of honour versus desire. The Grail Knight leaves society in search of a higher truth, a direct meeting with the legacy of Christ. The detective remains inside society, albeit aloof, and purges it of vice to the best of his ability, and searches not for a higher spiritual meaning, but a pragmatic eradication of evil’s presence.
Regard The Name of the Rose as a straightforward example of where an overtly religious detective rejects divine explanations and resolves a human culprit for the deaths in the monastery.
I think that if we were going to assume some close equivalence between the mythic knight and the detective that we would like to see some of these correlations working in reverse – the Knight as Detective, if you will. But no courtly tale that I can think of has anything like a deductive or investigative process in it. Think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for example – Gawain sets off in search of the knight, but instead of searching for him, spends his days in Bersalak’s castle being tempted by Bersalak’s wife. The very obvious opportunity for investigation is completely destroyed to focus on the real topic of interest: the moral character of the knight. Furthermore, the moral character of the detective is never part of the question being resolved by the text: he is never at fault, as knights so often are.
If you pull out this lynch-pin of her statement, the whole essay begins to seem nonsensical. If Peter Wimsey isn’t a knight, we need some other way of interpreting his empathy. In this case I think WH Auden’s perception of the detective story being an allegory for the Original Sin is far more compelling. Peter Wimsey is thus Jesus Christ (who, I realise, also didn’t do much by way of ratiocination), restoring purity to Eden and suffering by proxy as a purgative for mankind. For whatever that’s worth.
I thus await still some kind of really good argument making a generic case for the detective as Grail Knight, one founded on close textual reading and which offers insights into the work which aren’t available in another reading stance.
However, there is a little more to get out of this piece if you come with an open mind. From the way her entire argument is framed, I think it’s quite reasonable to substitute “Man” for “Grail Knight”. Similarly the “Wasteland” from the article title is simply “the world”. Other substitutions need to be made, replacing terms derived from mythological study with simpler terms like “man”, “woman”, “gender inequality” and so on.
The work is overtly interested in the male/female dichotomy and their different roles in detective practices. This is its real focus, distorted by layers of associative and cognitive dissonance fostered by her choice to bring into play highly charged terms. She has repeated the classic mistake – destroying what’s essential to her argument by trying to fortify it with fancy terms and references.
Why has she done it? Well, the obvious answer is hinted above – to provide a two-way critique of two different spheres of her interest. By aligning detectives and grail knights, she offers a reverse-critique on medieval romances as inherently masculine, because that is her critique of detectives. Unfortunately, this is so oblique and buried that it submerges what could be a really interesting question- how could the rise of female detectives since the 1980s be mirrored in the creation of female questing knights in a romance?
Unfortunately, it’s not really news that the detective genre is highly gendered, and this mythical obfuscation doesn’t really go beyond that central point. I wish it would, because there is one area where I think there is a shared characteristic between knights and detectives: courtly love. The interaction of courtly love with the knight’s quest and the detective’s investigation is one area, unlike the gross “quest” aspect Rowland focuses on, that could yield fruit.