[(essay date 1997) In the following essay, Fledderus correlates several aspects of the characters and plot of The English Patient to various character types and narrative elements that typify Arthurian romance and medieval quest literature.]
The word on the street and in newspaper commentary about Michael Ondaatje's 1992 novel The English Patient, especially since a movie version came out in 1996, is that the story marks a return to "the good old-fashioned romance." This common quip bears a second glance, for beyond the novel's superficial connections with thirty years of mass-market, formula love-stories and with 1930s Hollywood movie plots, this novel is self-consciously rooted in a body of literature with which the term "romance" was originally used: twelfth-and thirteenth-century retellings of Arthurian legends. The characters and plot of The English Patient are in fact analogous in very significant respects to certain character types of Arthurian romance and to the earliest written narratives of quest for the holy grail.
The connection is not an obvious one, however. While The English Patient revels in a plethora of overt intertextual references, explicit references to Arthurian romances are few and far between. Nonetheless, careful examination reveals that Ondaatje's use of Arthurian elements is central and crucial to the novel. More specifically, the novel is informed by the early anthropological school of romance criticism (c. 1915), in which Dame Jessie Weston applied the ideas of Sir J. G. Frazer to make a now well-known anthropological reading of the grail quest. Weston's reading focuses on the fisher king, the wasteland and other romance elements as hold-overs from the ritual practices of ancient fertility cults. Examining the exploitation of these materials in The English Patient will help readers develop a more sensitive aesthetic and critical judgement and interpretation of this (post)modern novel.1
These various texts and authors from different eras of history have many connections. Frazer, at the turn of the century, saw that a diversity of ancient fertility myths had at their root a common attempt to explain the changing of seasons and the passing of generations. Weston discovered elements of these same myths in Arthurian romance, and focused her analysis beyond the obvious Christian symbolism in romance to the pagan (Celtic) substructure on which it had been constructed. Ondaatje sets his story in the age of Frazer and Weston, the age of the (European) world wars when the simplicity and unifying power of a mythopoeic world-view may have seemed an attractive haven from the disasters brought by purportedly Christian nations upon each other. Ondaatje's novel follows the lead of Weston's criticism and undercuts Christian uses of these myths in favor of a celebration of the possibility of new life and community amid war. Of course, the celebration is tentative and the community is temporary, but such are the characteristics of the age--call it late capitalist or postmodern if you like--which has developed since then. Ondaatje uses the myths to affirm that individual human transcendence can be found in temporary, intense human community, as...