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Motif in Literature - Ambiguity, Size, Etymology: Dynamism, King Motifs In The Medieval Arthurian Tradition, Stith Thompson's Motif-index Of Folk-literature

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George Steiner has described culture as a matrix of recurrent and interrelated elements, a motor fueled by revolving constants. Broadly speaking, cultural literacy relies on our ability to recognize these constants—in literature, music, painting, or any other form of cultural production—and to work out relationships between them, to translate and recycle the meaning we inherit from them. Thus, the single word Roncevaux, voiced offhandedly by one man to another in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, can echo for the reader with large themes of betrayal, ambush, rivalry, and national loss—but only if the word is recognized as an allusion to the death trap set treacherously for Charlemagne's twelve peers in the early-twelfth-century Chanson de Roland. The tone of Steiner's short reflection on cultural literacy is dire, his main point being that "elementary" allusions and "implicit motifs"—such as Roncevaux—go unrecognized even by today's most "privileged students and readers." A small literary element like Roncevaux, reused over time in various languages and genres, provides a useful example of a cultural "constant," and recognizing the rich depth afforded by such recycled bits of meaning is in fact a method of comparative literary analysis. Motif is one word that can be used to delimit and distinguish an element like Roncevaux. But our options are many, and terms prove in practice frequently interchangeable. Steiner writes generally of topologies, a term that lumps together and encompasses such overlapping concepts as topos, archetype, motif, and genre. Our focus here is on the motif and limits the cultural field to literature. And yet Steiner's more expansive notion of culture as a network of recurring, interrelated constants provides one of the more helpful and lucid introductions to the movement and persistence associated with literary motif, an otherwise ambiguous element in comparative analysis.

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