Malory, Fractals, and James Earl

January 12, 2007 at 1:15 am (malory, reading notes)

isomeme on livejournal happens to be reading Malory at the same time I am, though he’s doing Vinaver and I’m doing Cooper. He’s noted two amusing/interesting things in his reading so far, and I have permission to quote the first. Vinaver notes the confusion of the French sources, but argues for an overall sort of structure in the French tales (I have not read Vinaver’s introduction). isomeme writes:

“The editor goes on at length trying to convey the seemingly chaotic yet subtly structured and entirely harmonious pattern that results from the repeated application of these transformations. But by the end of the first paragraph, I was practically shouting “It’s a fractal!” Fractal geometry is created using very similar repeatedly-applied rules, and results in analogous self-similar structures, with the same kind of elusive, chaotic harmony of form.”

I don’t know much about fractals — indeed, not enough to really comment on this. The transformations my friend is talking about refer to things like taking an element of an established story and elaborating on it in a new story, or a story might have an area expanded and then reinserted into an existing narrative, creating a new tale with new divisions and a “new, improved” middle segment.

This leads me back to Beowulf, though, like just about everything does, and dug out James Earl’s Thinking about Beowulf from last semester’s stack. Earl writes of the Mandelbrot set on the cover of my edition that the “metaphor is visual, not linguistic.” Once I think about this way, I can buy it — I am having trouble tying the creative (and political, and didactic) impulse(s) involved in selecting and selectively translating and redacting various tales to anything so mappable as a fractal’s behaviour — the problem with thinking of these stories’ permutations as having little copies of themselves buried in the original and being, really, pretty similar, is that the original is hardly recoverable, and we don’t have a Grimm’s law for back-engineering the prototype of a tale. (I don’t think.) The mathematical stuff just doesn’t work for me, though that could have a whole lot to do with my utter lack of understanding of most things mathematical.

But Earl says, “Poems…have what Mandelbrot calls fractal coastlines. They sit on their pages like so many discrete little islands, but the closer we look, the more indefinable and complex their edges become; ambiguity and intertextual connections become apparent, adn soon all attempts at measurement veer toward infinity…. Subtleties revealed at higher magnification routinely nullify earlier impressions….Language is fractal in this way; and literature, particularly poetry, specializes in this vertiginous effect, as it plunges asymptotically toward the immanent and the transcendent” (7).

I dunno. What do you think?

I’ll post the other funny after I get permission and a picture I think I’d like to use to illustrate it.


Earl, James. Thinking about Beowulf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.


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