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From Early English Romances: Done Into Modern English by Edith Rickert: Romances of Friendship, Chatto and Windus: London, Duffield & Co.: London, 1908; pp. xi-xxiv.
THIS volume includes six stories in which love, war, and adventure are subordinated to an ideal of friendship; and these romances, although the last is pretty well two hundred years later than the first, show a curious continuity of ideas.
In all of them friendship is a veritable passion, and the betrayal of friendship becomes for the time the supreme sin. This attitude of mind is characteristic of many old Germanic tales, and, notwithstanding examples of friendship in other literatures, seems to me peculiarly Teutonic in its intensity and the completeness with which it tends to swallow up other phases of life. In Amis and Amiloun, Athelston, and Gray-Steel, we have traces of the old Teutonic custom of sworn-brotherhood, in which a life-long relation is deliberately entered into by two men not akin. This was originally sealed by “blood-blending” — that is, each cut his arm and allowed the blood to mix with his brother’s, as is related in several northern poems, and by Saxo Grammaticus and other writers; later on, as in these romances, the ceremony seems to have become xii simply an oath. But the oath so sworn was the most binding thing in the world, and involved the risking of life in the friend’s service. Amiloun becomes a leper for Amis, Amis sacrifices his children to heal Amiloun. Athelston yields only to the worst threats before he will betray Wymound. Grime undertakes deadly combat to avenge Eger’s dishonour and to win for him his lady.
It is an extravagant emotion, this friendship. In the case of Amis and Amiloun it is based upon the idea of complete physical resemblance between two who are not related, much as is the love of Floris and Blancheflour. With Athelston it results from the extraordinary coincidence of the meeting of four strangers at the crossing of four roads; but it comes to be extravagantly rewarded, as treachery to it is extravagantly punished. In Amadas it follows upon extraordinary charity, wherein a man gives his all out of sheer fellow-feeling, is rewarded with a kingdom and a queen, and called upon in return to sacrifice his wife and child to his compact of friendship. In Gamelyn, we have the contrast between the unnatural hatred of a brother and the complete devotion of an old servant to the disinherited, and also of the band of outlaws with whom he takes refuge. The title of Roswall and Lillian suggests a love-story, but the core of the tale is Roswall’s release of the prisoners, their oath of perpetual friendship, and the way in which they fulfil it in his time of need. Gray-Steel if the story of an amazing one-sided xiii devotion, but there are hints that Eger lacked only occasion to do as much for Grime.
Combined with the friendship-theme in these romances, runs a strong idea of the sacredness of an oath. Amis cannot fight his accuser because the charge against him is true, and he dares not swear his innocence; hence Amiloun must take his place. Amadas must kill his wife and child rather than withdraw from the compact into which he entered heedlessly. Athelston, having once sworn not to betray the traitor, is reluctant even when promised absolution at the hands of his archbishop. In Gamelyn it is the wicked brother’s perjury and treachery that call down the minstrel’s wrath; while in Roswall and Lillian, the oath given by Roswall to the false steward, even under threat of death, binds him until his identity is revealed by his three friends.
Again, it is interesting to note, in several of these romances, how the idea of friendship is worked out in subordinate episodes: how it was partly the refusal of Amis to be the steward’s sworn brother, thus forsaking Amiloun, that brought on his trouble; and how the child Amoraunt served his lord Amiloun for many years with touching devotion, and through all hardship and temptation; how in Athelston the queen flung away her garland of cherries to intercede for her friends, and how even in her illness, she sent to fetch them help; how Roswall in his distress was taken in by a poor old dame and her son, and well xiv treated by a kindly schoolmaster; even the ever-faithful Palyas does his share.
All these details, and others that might be quoted, go to show that through all the fantasies of romance, the fundamental human relationships were much the same in the Middle Ages as they are now.
Amis and Amiloun, translated immediately from a French poem, has been referred to an Oriental origin for no good reason that I can discover. From the general character of its ideas (and from the names in the Latin version), it seems to be Germanic; but at the present time its elements seem not to have been traced.
Perhaps the chief merit of Amis and Amiloun is that it is fundamentally a good story. From the first we are stirred by the devotion of Amiloun and its terrible punishment, and our interest is sustained to the very end by the wonder how and when Amis will make a return. The English poet is insufferably prolix, often managing to spin one small idea through a twelve-line stanza, but not even his fondness for conventional repetitions spoils the story; and in the translation I have thought it justifiable to limit the number of times in which he says the same thing. The character-drawing in the tale is not interesting except in its presentation of two disagreeable women, the love-sick Belisaunt, whom the minstrel seems rather to admire, and the selfish, shrewish wife of Amiloun. These demand a certain amount of sympathy which it is difficult to feel for xv the twin-heroes; for Amiloun’s wife certainly had a grievance in her knowledge that her husband had sacrificed her as well as himself to friendship; and Belisaunt stood the test of friendship well when she heard that her children were slain for Amiloun, though it is doubtful whether any woman on earth would have taken the tragedy quite as complacently as she did. The finest parts of the poem are the description of the leper’s life with Amoraunt, and the scenes in the nursery with the children of Amis, which are full of pretty, quaint, and vivid touches.
Sir Amadas has no known French source, and yet there are several reasons for holding that it is probably a translation. For one thing, it bears no strong marks of English local colour to suggest that it is an original composition; for another, there is a faint suggestion — a mere ghostly hint — of its theme in the French romance of Amadas and Ydoine. The episode is simply of the hero’s encounter with a supernatural knight at a tomb. In the French, Amadas fights the knight and the tomb is Ydoine’s; but the bare fact of the meeting between an Amadas and a ghost-knight suggests that another story may have existed of this sort, upon which the English poem was based. The episode of the widow watching by her husband’s bier is found in Dolopathos, but the circumstances and the sequel differ utterly. However, the separate occurrence of these two ideas in French makes it more likely that they were xvi combined by an unknown French poet than by an English minstrel of no great gifts.
In this romance again, the story’s the thing; we are interested to know how the condition attached to the promised wealth will be fulfilled. In the manner of its performance there is perhaps a faint suggestion of the sacrifice of Abraham, at least in the willingness of the victim and the intervention of the angel. The characters, too, are interesting in themselves, the impulsive, generous Amadas and even his prototype, the unfortunate waster who could not say “No;” the hard-headed merchant, the forlorn widow, and above all the meek and faithful wife, whose devotion arouses the minstrel himself to enthusiasm. And certainly the little scene in which she sends for her baby, and lying down, covers her eyes with a handkerchief so that she shall not see the sword descend, is touching enough to warrant his praise.
Athelston was thought by Zupitza to be a translation; but he gave no detailed reasons for his opinion. The weight of evidence seems to me in favour of the belief that it is an original English composition. Its local colour is markedly taken from London and the road between London, Canterbury, and Dover, at the end of the fourteenth century. The turbulence of the barons, with their threats to depose the king, seems to reflect the reign of Richard II. Moreover, the characters are all English and bear Old English names. These facts do not prove that no xvii French original ever existed; but as it has left no certain trace, they militate against the necessity of assuming it. The evidence of William of Malmesbury alone suffices to show that legendary matter had accumulated about the name of Athelstan; and it is probable that he was once the hero of a cycle of tales. For the events in this romance there is a certain foundation in Malmesbury’s chronicle. He relates that Athelstan came of a large family, some of whom had a different mother; that his half-brother Edwin was accused falsely of attempting his life, by his cup-bearer Alfred, and was accordingly brought to death by the king; further, that the slanderer, while attempting to clear himself by oath before the Pope, fell senseless and died, being so an example of the judgment of God. The real Athelstan had a sister Edith who was, however, married to Charles the Simple; and he was succeeded by an Edmund (not St. Edmund). The minstrel’s assertion that Edmund was the king’s nephew doubtless arose from the fact that he knew that Athelstan’s sister was Edith, but not that his mother had the same name.
One small detail in the story suggests that the author was working over an older tale; that is, his noting that the messenger was a foundling who was also called Athelstan. No one would have invented without authority such a pointless detail, which bears not the slightest reference to the story; but any blundering minstrel who came upon the statement might try somehow, however xviii awkwardly, to fit it in, as appears to have been the case here.
If, then, he had a source, the character of his romance, with its absence of love-interest, its Teutonic ideas of sworn-brotherhood and ordeal by fire, its Old English names, and its fourteenth-century English colouring, suggests strongly that he was working up some earlier English legend about Athelstan.
The merit of the romance is not perhaps very great, but it is full of curious ideas, and the presentation of fourteenth-century London is interesting. The two women are the most vivid characters: the mother, who was all of a flutter to see her sons knighted, and the noble-spirited queen who sacrificed so much to friendship.
The tale of Gamelyn hovers on the borderland between ballad and romance; but is here included alike for its theme, its intrinsic interest, and its literary connections.
These last are two-fold: (1) it is the source of Lodge’s story of Rosalynde or Euphues’ Golden Legacy, upon which Shakespeare based his As You Like It; (2) it stands in some sort of relation to several Robin Hood ballads in which a Gamelyn or Gandelyn appears. Whether the ballads have borrowed from the romance, or both are derived from the same legendary sources, I do not know.
Inasmuch as no trace of a French original has been found, I see no reason for presupposing one in this instance. The occurrence of one French name Ote, and the doubtful xix Boundys (or Bordeaux) is the only ground I can find, from internal evidence, for such an hypothesis. The poem seems to me as thoroughly English in spirit, style, and form as does Havelok the Dane; and, like the latter, seems to belong to the East Midlands, where Scandinavian influence survived (cf. note on the name Gamelyn). Indeed, the two poems show several resemblances in character: Gamelyn, like Havelok, is disinherited by an unnatural relation, and has to flee, is accompanied by a faithful friend much older than himself, distinguishes himself in outdoor sports, has to do with outlaws, and performs wonders with a great piece of wood, instead of the more usual weapons. Notwithstanding these points of contact, the plots are so essentially different that we can conclude only that the two stories belong to the same general class of tales, or, at the very most, that certain features of the Havelok legend have modified Gamelyn. It is not impossible that the theme of the disinherited son, in both cases, may have been founded on some actual incident.
The romance, whatever its faults, is not dull; it has plenty of action. The young Gamelyn cracks crowns and breaks bones from the beginning, and concludes his youthful career with a wholesale hanging of all his enemies. The poem is the exact obverse of, for example, The Squire of Low Degree, being totally devoid of sentiment and sentimentality, and full of a brisk open-air brutality, with plenty of oaths and drinking and honest fighting. In xx pictures of English country-life, the manor-house, the wrestling-ring, and woods and the village moot-hall are wonderfully vivid; and it is here and there touched with a kind of grim humour, which I take to be Norse, that is distinctly attractive.
The author of Roswall and Lillian reveals such a wide acquaintance with the heroes and heroines of earlier romances that it is not necessary to suppose that he borrowed from a definite French original his somewhat conventional plot. Although the scenes of the story are laid abroad, the names of the characters are not French, and the pseudonym Dissawar (see note) appears to be Scotch. A certain influence from Ipomedon is traceable in the account of the tournament; but otherwise, the late date and character of the romance alike suggest that it is rather a blending of old familiar elements than a direct rendering of a much earlier tale.
The story itself is a fair specimen of the conventional romance, its chief interest lying in the bits of description and occasional touches of human nature.
The Story of Gray-Steel, fundamentally Teutonic, but with perhaps some Celtic admixture, has all the appearance of a local legend attached to the South-western Border of England and Scotland. It seems to owe very little of its material, with the possible exception of the episode of Kay and Gornordine, to any French source.
Sir Walter Scott identified Gar(n)wicke with Carrick in Ayrshire. In the sixteenth century, Lyndsay placed the xxi scene of the combat “half a mile beyond Kinneill,” which, however, is in Linlithgowshire, not very far from Edinburgh. The fact that the ballad of Sir Lionel, which has borrowed from the romance, places the scene by the Esk, suggests that Lyndsay may have alluded to the Kinnell, a stream in Dumfriesshire which empties into the Annan. It would seem likely, from the story itself, that he should mention a river than a town.
Again, the description in the poem shows a remarkably exact topography. There was a river with the two fords and an island (between them?), on the island seemingly a castle, and on the farther bank seven towns; and the river very soon emptied into the salt sea. This tract of country was called the “Forbidden Land,” or, in the edition of 1711, the “Land of Doubt.” Every knight who passed that way had to undertake combat; and the enemy who held it was finally conquered by a knight called Grime, or, in 1711, Graham (the form Graham occurring also in the ballad of Sir Lionel). Putting aside for the moment the original meaning of the incident, I think there is some evidence of a local legend about the Solway district. Apart from the wide appeal of the story, as is evinced by numerous early quotations, and also from the statement of Mr. David Laing that in his time many proverbial sayings about Gray-Steel were current among the Scottish peasantry, these points may be considered: (1) In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a tract of land along the Solway, between the Esk and the Sark, was xxii called the “Debatable Land,” and was the scene of mnay conflicts between the English and Scottish borderers. (2) The Grahams were one of the chief clans inhabiting the district. (3) The Esk here empties into the Solway, as the river in the poem, into the sea. (4) The Esk is the scene of the ballad, Sir Lionel, which borrows from the romance. (5) Loosepaine’s husband, Attelston, can be no other than Athelstan; and the Athelstan of story is the victor of Brunanburh. The site of Brunanburh is not certainly determined, but the Saxon Chronicle seems to imply that it was in Scotland, and a good case can be made out for Burnswork in Dumfriesshire, nine miles from the Solway (cf. alternative forms Brunnanwerc, Bruneswerce for the battlefield, with Burneswark, Brunswark for the village). As Mr. George Neilson points out in his Annals of the Solway until 1307, the probabilities are distinctly in favour of the site. On that hypothesis, the occurrence of the name Attelstan helps out the case for the Solway.
Further, there is no doubt that the Teutonic elements in the story point to much greater antiquity than its actual date. Professor Child marked a certain likeness between Gray-Steel and Grendel in Beowulf, the warden of misty moorlands by the sea which no man dared traverse. And again, the parallel may be observed when Gray-Steel’s hand in its glove is borne away as a trophy and shown in the hall. Grendel was a giant with the strength of thirty men; and Gray-Steel’s hand was three xxiii times ordinary size. But the figure of Gray-Steel seems to have taken up also an element derived from Celtic mythology. It was said of Gawain that his strength trebled from morning to noon and decreased as much from noon to night; but in the case of Gray-Steel, the sun myth is even more apparent: his might increased by the strength of a man every hour until mid-day and decreased in the same proportion until evening, when he was an ordinary mortal.
The above-named peculiarity seems to be the chief Celtic element in the tale; but the Teutonic ideas are abundant: (1) the sworn-brotherhood of the heroes; (2) the defence of a ford or narrow pass; (3) the use of the cut-off fingers in evidence of death; (4) the naming of the sword, whether Erkyin or Edgeking, and so on.
The points I have named outline a course for further investigation: a search in local history and tradition for more traces of the romance, and also for historic events which might have formed a parallel to the ancient material, and so have led to the extraordinary mixture of human and supernatural elements in the romance as it stands.
The high merit of the poem does not lie in its plot. Indeed, this was early felt to be unsatisfactory — by one man at least. The reviser whose work appears in the Aberdeen edition of 1711, saw fit to add a sequel of about 60 lines. According to this, Grime dies, and Eger confesses to his wife the deception that has been practised upon her. Thereupon she retires to a convent, and he, by xxiv way of penance, goes to the Holy Land. After he has distinguished himself there for some time, he returns and, finding that Winglayne had died in her convent, marries Loosepaine, Grime’s widow. this sequel shows plainly that Eger’s conduct was felt to be unsatisfactory, and also that he was, in a sense, thought to have the first claim upon Loosepaine.
It is in the character-drawing and the painting of characteristic scenes that the main strength of the romance lies. The four chief figures are sharply defined: the canny, dogged, silent, deep-feeling Grime — a true Scot; brave, impulsive, flighty, weak-willed Eger; Winglayne, proud, sharp-spoken, satirical, yet faithful — also Scotch; and the gentle Loosepaine, with her one little flash of rage. The charming pictures are innumerable: Eger’s account of the battle, with Winglayne listening at the door; Palyas holding Eger down in bed to keep him from betraying the secret to their shrewish visitor; Eger reading romances aloud in a window; Loosepaine weeping over her psaltery; Grime’s early morning ride down to the river, and many more.
The author’s style is rough, his metre obviously much corrupted; but he has such a way with him, such imagination, sense, and dry, sly humour that this tale is one of the very best among the Middle English romances.