The Ghoulish and the Ghastly: A Moral Aesthetic in Middle English Alliterative Verse.
Explores the topos of the grotesque or ghoulish apparition in alliterative poetry, didactic and romance. Unlike tempestuous storms, grisly battles, etc., the grotesque encounter is always central to the theme of the work, not merely a narrative set piece. Usually the import of a gruesome character is revealed through its name (e.g., Dame Death in Death and Life), yet often the poets achieve their effects subtly and through understatement (as in The Three Kings, traditionally referred to as De tribus regibus mortuis). Thematically, the grotesque functions in the poems as a mirror to initiate mindfulness of sin and death and to strengthen penitential resolve; to contrast images of decay with images of beauty and vitality in suggesting a comprehensive attitude that embraces both suffering and joy; and to show man as caught in time, as journeying perforce through life to the grave. The unexpected or surreal nature of the warning imparted by the grotesque character invariably leads to confrontation with morbidity, though the range of treatment in The Three Kings, Death and Life, P3A, Summer Sunday, and the works of the Pearl-poet testifies to a richly versatile convention.
MLQ 48 (1987): 3-19.
Fein, Susanna G.