The Owl and the Nightingale

Jill Mann

in From Aesop to Reynard

Published in print November 2009 | ISBN: 9780199217687
Published online February 2010 | e-ISBN: 9780191712371 | DOI:
The Owl and the Nightingale

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The redundancy of language is also a source of comedy in The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English debate‐poem which draws on an eclectic range of traditions—lyric, bestiary, fable, lai, as well as debate. The shifting invocations of these various literary modes comically unsettle the reader's sense of how each animal is to be judged, and the introduction of details of avian appearance and habits, alongside appeals to ‘Nature’ as the amoral determinant of each bird's characteristics, carries this unsettling process even further. The birds also use beast literature (Marie's lai of Laüstic, and one of her fables) as ‘evidence’ against each other, moralizing animal behaviour in sublime disregard of the mechanisms by which it is usually given moral implication for humans, but not for the animals themselves. This reversal of direction reaches its climax with the surprisingly serious reinterpretation in terms of Nature, rather than in terms of religious dogma.

Keywords: The Owl and the Nightingale; debate; Nature; lyric; bestiary; Laüstic; beast fable

Chapter.  24917 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)

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