1. Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” is far more understated in its description of the werewolf than similar imagery in modern novels. One element of modern writing is an increased reliance on imagery rather than suggestion, and while the important element of “Bisclavret” is the theme rather than description, in modern works we tend to get both – consider the case of Professor Lupin from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The focus in “Bisclavret” is on the treachery of the wife and the knight, and the rectitude of the former baron. The narration in “The Porter’s Tale” is more vivid in its description than in “Bisclavret” – we get a much clearer idea of the dogs’ appearance than of the baron.
2. In the Ninth Circle, the first round is named after Cain, the first murderer in history (at least the recorded history of the Bible). While it was beyond wrong for Cain to murder his brother, what did he know of special bonds between family members? After all, he and his brother, along with his parents and other siblings, should have been the only people on the planet at the time. Of course, that then begs the question of why Cain needed a special mark to protect himself from people in the Land of Nod. While Cain belongs in the Inferno, he would be more appropriately located in the Sixth Circle (Anger) instead of the Ninth, frozen in ice. He murdered Abel out of anger – not out of pre-planned treachery.
3. The story of Beowulf represents primal forces that do not fit neatly into a theological package. There are supernatural beasts such as the Grendel, that do not have much of a place in a Church-sanctioned tale – on the other hand, gallantry, fealty, shining armor and other details do fit well into the language of Scripture. The themes of Beowulf are much grittier – they deal with revenge, anger – the Old Testament type of themes that are the reason why preachers tend to stick to the Gospels and the Letters of St. Paul in their homilies. However, the heroism of Beowulf must have stuck out to this monk, who may have had a dissident impulse in wanting to keep this story for posterity.
4. While both “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and “The Porter’s Tale” involve men who have stumbled into situations that test their ability to resist sexual temptation, “Sir Gawain” differs in that it imbues the tale with thematic attempts to tie the story to a larger, redeeming moral ending. “The Porter’s Tale” has more comedy, as the bumbling porter is lured across the city, with his sense of expectation building and building in each scene. “Sir Gawain” stays focused more on the retention of virtue, making sure that the main character does not commit any transgressions, while “The Porter’s Tale” is more sheer fun to read. The porter’s undoing is funnier, as a result, than Sir Gawain’s. Indeed, the ending to “Sir Gawain” borders on the clumsy, because of the need for a tightly wrapped ending.
5. One common point in the magic of Prospero, the Djinns and Morgan le Fay, is that it all seems to be benign in its morality. While the magic does lead to fear and does deceive, in all three cases, the purpose of this magic seems to be ultimately restorative in terms of relationships. Prospero’s magic is designed to preserve the island’s isolation but also to make sure that lovers and beloveds end up doing the right thing. Morgan le Fay’s test of Sir Gawain is rigorous but ends up showing his moral fiber. The magic of the Djinns has less moral purpose to it than that of the other two stories, but it still leads to a romp of a tale – which is the point, anyway.
6. The Songs of the Aztec Nobility contain a great deal of earnestness; in contrast, many of the other poems and stories we have read come from a more relaxed context. As a result, there is a lot more fun and frolic in them than in the Aztec songs. These read a lot more like the Psalms from the Bible, with appeals to nature and praise for the divine. One would have a hard time taking these songs seriously right after reading “Sir Gawain” or “The Porter’s Tale,” simply because one would be moving from the ribald to the reverent. It would appear that the Aztecs had a lot more uncertainty with regard to their religion than the other cultures, because the focus is on praise and propitiation; from the other cultures, the focus is more on leisurely pursuits.