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Book Spotlight: Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

P03310According to Curtis A. Gruenler CN ’96, texts that rely on enigma (ainigma) as an organizing structure—at once playful, provocative, and mystical—lie somewhere between transparency and opacity, inviting readers “into never-ending contemplation that grows from new interpretive voices while still being centered on a reality that transcends articulation.” In his new book, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology, Dr. Gruenler uses the concept of the enigmatic to present a richer understanding of medieval literature. The book traces the origin of enigmatic literature in English to William Langland’s Piers Plowman.

“It is enigmatic, in a medieval sense, on every level, from lines that use schoolroom riddle tricks to its overall ambitions as a theological vision,” says Dr. Gruenler in an online essay about the book. “At his best, Langland pioneered English poetry that could evoke mystery, not merely as a puzzle to be solved nor as mystification, but as what, increasingly in the modern period, we have come to seek in literature”—a complexification and an invitation to engage.

The poetics of enigma, as described by Dr. Gruenler, allow medieval authors to craft text that promotes exploration and contemplation. From theological writings to Chaucer and Dante, the use of obscure language opens a world of exploring the great mysteries of life and of the divine.

Dr. Gruenler’s work is “immensely learned, ranging widely over classical and medieval literature and medieval theology and philosophy to bring superb new insight to Piers Plowman in particular, but also to a host of other texts,” say Yale University Professor Traugott Lawler. “Above all, it brings out brilliantly, and not in any pietistic way, the deep Christianity of the poem, too often ignored nowadays by secularizing scholars.”

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