12 QUEST AND QUESTIONING IN ROMANCE

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ROMANCE elements have always seemed a quintessential ingredient in

the literature of chivalry, especially the portrayal of an individual knight

on quest, searching for adventure in the outer world and often refashioning

meaning in the world within himself.1 These questing knights are less likely to

seek adventures on a panoramic battlefield strewn with slain pagans, or even in

heroic defence of legitimate monarchy as guarantor of order, than in individual

acts intended to prove worth and to right wrongs. The quest is thus a splendid

medium not only for praising ideal knighthood, but for probing the relationship

of chivalric practices to the civilization emerging in high medieval Europe.

Though the quest pattern is common, the direction and destination vary

from one work to another. Much questing in the Lancelot–Grail cycle, for

example, originates in the need to find Lancelot or some other hero, absent

from the court on some quest of his own.2 These quests for the great heroes,

for identity, or simply for adventure, allow multiple thematic lines and raise

hard questions.

Some texts, however, give the quest motif particular focus, with adventures

leading to a dramatic transformation in a single hero or a small group. Here,

too, the hard questions keep coming to the surface, sometimes allowing for

multiple points of view, always emphasizing the difficulty of finding solutions

to problems associated with knighthood in the real world. Three examples will

allow us to explore the links between quest and chivalry.

The Quest of the Holy Grail

The Quest of the Holy Grail (La Queste del Saint Graal),3 written about 1225–30

as a part of the vast Lancelot–Grail cycle, has been termed an anti-romance or

1 See footnote 3, Chapter 2, above.

2 For the importance of Lancelot’s own quest for identity in the slightly earlier Lancelot do Lac,

see Elspeth Kennedy, ‘Quest for Identity’.

3 Pauphilet, ed., Queste. I found two translations useful: Matarasso, tr., Quest and Burns, tr.,

Quest. For studies of the text, see Frappier, ‘Le Graal’; Bogdonow, Romance of the Grail; idem, ‘An

even a spiritual fable. It has also been called the last flowering of monastic culture.

4 The text draws on biblical and patristic thought in ways that seem in particular

to represent Cistercian spirituality which had been elaborated in the

previous century and preserved its influence in a newer world of mendicants,

scholasticism, and universities.5 Scholars have thus long sought some species

of monastic origin for the author, but he was probably not a Cistercian monk,

nor even a product of their schools.6 Cistercian houses at this time contained

almost no vernacular works and considered even books on canon law a dangerous

diversion into worldly interests; likewise, Cistercian monks wrote

almost no vernacular works, and certainly no romances.7 Pauline Matarasso’s

conclusion seems balanced:

The Queste is assuredly the product of a monastic mind, but probably not of a strictly

monastic milieu. It could, I believe, have been written by a Cistercian seconded from

his abbey to some lay or ecclesiastical dignitary. It is more likely to be the work of a

younger man still searching for his vocation, if only because this was a commoner situation.

It is unquestionably that of a man alert to the problems of his day.’8

How, then, does this author bring the ideals of monastic spirituality to bear

on knightly violence and disorder, and on the imperatives of sexuality—surely

outstanding instances of ‘the problems of his day’?

In significant ways the reforming programme of the Queste would have

drawn a resounding ‘amen’ from St Bernard, the great voice of Cistercian

monasticism of nearly a century earlier. Fanni Bogdanow has convincingly

linked Bernard’s theology and the programme of this text.9 At a more obvious

level, the link with the Knights Templar (for whom Bernard wrote ‘In Praise

of the New Knighthood’) appears in the first adventure of the quest. Hearing

or reading that the marvellous shield securely kept behind the altar in an abbey

of White Monks (the shield which King Baudemagus so unwisely carries for

Interpretation’; Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry; Baumgartner, L’Arbre et le pain; Shichtman,

‘Politicizing the Ineffable’.

4 Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 242–3.

5 Meaning in this romance has often been derived from an interpretation of the Grail, rather

than the reverse. See the discussion, with citations to other scholarly work, in Bogdanow, ‘An

Interpretation’, 23, n. 2.

6 Citations of important works on this point in Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 228–9. One

obvious conclusion is that Walter Map, the worldly cleric claimed by the text as its author, did not

write the Queste. Not only did he die too soon, he truly hated the Cistercians. Matarasso thinks

the attribution reflects either ignorance or, equally likely, interest in causing Walter to roll uneasily

in his grave: pp. 232–377.

7 Ibid., 225–8.

8 Ibid., 240. In the introduction to her translation, Matarasso terms him ‘one of that great army

of clerks who wandered anonymously in that no-man’s land between the lay and ecclesiastical

worlds: Quest, 27. Cf. Baumgartner, L’Arbre et le pain, 42–5.

9 Bogdanow, ‘An Interpretation’.

so brief a time) bears a red cross on a white ground,10 the audience would need

no prompting to recognize Templar insignia; we are once again in the world

of ‘The Praise of the New Knighthood’. In company with St Bernard, the

author of the Queste clearly favours an infusion of the monastic virtues into

knightly lives needing spiritual discipline.

If the great sin of pride is constantly under correction, as it is here, sexual

laxity is unfailingly on the author’s mind. Virginity gets top billing, for example,

at the important moment when one of the omnipresent hermits explains

to Lancelot the virtues by which he might prosper in his quest for the Grail.11

After praising Lancelot for once knowing that ‘there was no prowess to compare

with being a virgin, shunning lust and keeping one’s body pure’, the hermit’s

list of ideal knightly virtues continues with humility, long-suffering,

rectitude, and charity.12 Such a list might produce nods of sage agreement in a

cloister, but it stands at some distance from the virtues that contemporaries

regularly heard praised in a courtly hall, on a tournament ground, or within

the glow of a campfire. There, the talk would obviously be first of prowess and

honour, loyalty, and largesse. Some voices in these lay settings might speak of

love, but they would probably talk of fin amors, of frankly sensual love, as the

spur and reward of prowess; such views could scarcely please the clerics in general,

and certainly would offend the regulars.

Ecclesiastics in the early thirteenth century probably thought the scene

between Lancelot and the hermit embodied a stunning opportunity. Mere laymen,

after all, are being offered the great benefits of monastic Christianity as

equals.13 We can recall the surprise with which some clerics received the news

of this startling innovation in the previous century.14

Perhaps another concession is being offered as well. The Queste carefully

walks the line between acceptance and rejection of prowess as a key knightly

Quest and Questioning in Romance 255

10 Matarasso, tr., Quest, 54; Burns, tr., Quest, ll; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 28.

11 Matarasso argues forcefully that the hermit’s list of virtues cannot be read as a simple rank

ordering. Virginity would serve Lancelot as a chief reform, but humility is stressed generally in the

text; the great Cistercian virtue of charity comes at the end of the hermit’s list, though it can

scarcely be thought last in importance: see Redemption of Chivalry, 143–61. The insistence on virginity

is, however, striking. Perceval nearly maims his own body after his brush with sexual temptation;

the Maimed King, upon recovering his potency, immediately joins the Cistercians.

Matarasso, Quest, 129, 277.

12 Matarasso, Quest, 141–2; Burns, Quest, 40–1; Pauphilet, Queste, 123–7.

13 See comment of Matarasso, Redemption of Chvalry, 240: ‘It may be objected that the ideal it

presented to its readers . . . was in fact unsuited to their needs, and incompatible with their duties.

But since no theology of the laity had as yet been elaborated, those who entered the pastoral field

must needs fall back on the traditional formulae which had proven their worth in the monastic

milieu where they had evolved.’ Matarasso praises the author of the Queste for giving his message

to laymen straight: ‘[H]e has not diluted this ideal, nor tried to temper the wind to the shorn

lamb.’ Baumgartner, L’Arbre et le pain, passim, emphasizes the role of this text as a praise of ideal

chivalry; see especially pp. 150–4.

14 Sources in Chapter 4, footnotes 23 and 24.

virtue.15 With open arms it accepts tournament (still, in the early thirteenth

century, condemned by clergie); it more carefully accepts the heroic use of

arms in the right causes.

Even Galahad, the perfect spiritual knight, must show the greatest prowess.

Arthur worries that Galahad will never return to court once the quest for the

Grail begins and that he will thus never witness his prowess; he proclaims a

great tournament ‘in order to see something of Galahad’s exploits’. He and the

others are not disappointed:

Galahad, who had ridden out into the meadow with the rest, began to shiver lances

with a force and fury that astonished all the onlookers. He accomplished so much in so

short a space that there was not a man or woman present but marvelled at his exploits

and accounted him victor over all comers. And those who had never seen him before

opined that he had made a worthy beginning in the way of chivalry, and that if his feats

that day were proof, he would easily surpass all other knights in prowess.16

In another of his improving conversations with the hermit, the encounter

leading to his repentance, Lancelot agrees, in principle, to sexual abstinence,

but asserts the need to continue his life of arms. The hermit agrees. Lancelot

knows that, ideally, his adultery with the queen must end, but he holds fast to

prowess with the grip of a drowning man:

in all respects I am as you portrayed me. But since you told me that I have not gone so

far but I may yet turn back, if by vigilance I keep from mortal sin, I swear to God and

secondly to you that I will never return to the life I led so long, but will observe chastity

and keep my body as pure as I am able. But while I am fit and hale as I am now I could

not forswear chivalry and the life of arms.

To this remarkably open bargain the hermit agrees, ‘overjoyed to hear such

sentiments’. Through his brother, who is of course a knight, the hermit even

promises Lancelot ‘a horse and arms and all things needful’.17 Lancelot’s exercise

of his great God-given prowess has not been a major problem and is not a

necessary target for the hermit’s pointed criticism; sexual laxity is, the hermit

knows, the great sin in Lancelot’s life. A good hermit knows his sinner and

prudently focuses his advice.

15 Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 240: ‘ “If you can’t beat them, join them” is a pastoral

method that has always had its adherents.’

16 Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in this setion are from Matarasso, tr., Quest, 42–3,

93–4, 71, 260–1, 266, 162, 200–5, 181–7, 192–4, 128–9, 121, 239–41; Burns, tr., Quest, 24, 16, 79, 81,

48, 60–1, 54–6, 57–8, 34–6, 33, 73; Pauphilet, ed., Queste, 14, 70–1, 45–6, 253, 259–60, 147, 189–93,

171–3, 184–5, 180–1, 104–10, 99–100, 231–3.

17 A promise of even heightened prowess seems to lie beneath the hermit’s assurance to

Lancelot, for he tells Lancelot that if he avoids sexual sin God will ‘empower you to accomplish

many things from which your sin debars you’. If his obvious reference is to greater success on the

Grail quest, the promise is couched in general terms.

The Queste, of course, is no paean of praise to the quotidian practice of

prowess. To the contrary, the consequences of knightly worship of this demigod

are shown unrelentingly. On a spiritual level the Queste sets the stage for

the dramatic downfall of the Round Table found in the Mort Artu, a later

romance in the same great cycle. The text insists time and again that the ultimate

reliance of the ideal knight must focus on God, not even on superhuman

prowess. Melias, just after receiving knighthood from Galahad himself, takes

the wrong road, illicitly grasps a crown, and learns that the Devil has pierced

him with the dart of pride, ‘for you thought that your prowess would see you

through, but your reason played you false’, as a wise monk tells him. The

monk says he suffered in order to learn ‘to trust . . . in your Saviour’s help

sooner than in your own right arm’.

Lancelot, always full of goodwill, but generally falling just short of the mark,

learns this lesson painfully in the Grail Castle. Ordered by God to enter the

castle, he characteristically prepares to fight his way in, past fierce lions guarding

the gate. After a flaming hand falls from the sky to disarm him, he hears the

voice say: ‘Man of little faith and weak belief, why do you put greater trust in

your hand than in your Creator? What a wretch you are not to realize that He

in whose service you have placed yourself has more strength than your

armour.’ Even this warning is insufficient. Allowed a distant view of the Grail

as the centre of a religious service glowing with light and resplendent with

angels, Lancelot fears the celebrant will drop the vessel; he enters the sacred

space forbidden him and is blinded and scorched by God’s wrath, left hovering

somewhere between living and dying for twenty-four days.

As he recovers, a similarly pointed, if less dramatic, rebuke is delivered to

Hector who arrives at the Grail Castle ‘in all his armour and mounted on a

great warhorse’ loudly and repeatedly to demand entry. The Grail King himself

must call out to Hector from a window, giving him directly the hard message

he has failed to learn from his own experience on his quest:

Sir Knight, you shall not enter; no man so proudly mounted as yourself shall enter here

so long as the Holy Grail is within. Go back to your own country, for you are surely no

companion of the Quest, but rather one of those who have quit the service of Jesus

Christ to become the liegemen of the enemy.

The gate is indeed strait.

The deeds of Gawain make the point even more strongly and more negatively,

as he marks his sterile quest with the dead and dying bodies of his opponents.

Failing to understand the spiritual nature of the quest, he always

remains locked within the tunnel vision of ‘chevalerie terrienne’, merely earthly

chivalry. ‘I have slain more than ten knights already, the worst of whom was

Quest and Questioning in Romance 257

more than adequate’, he boasts to Hector when they meet at one point, but

then concludes in foggy puzzlement, ‘and still have met with no adventure’.18

In his wild quarrel with his brother Bors, Lionel shows again the distortion

of the meaning of quest caused by internecine violence. Enraged that Bors has

chosen to rescue a maiden when he was simultaneously in danger, Lionel rides

his warhorse into the kneeling Bors ‘and straight over his body, breaking it

under his horse’s hooves’. When a hermit tries to save Bors, Lionel splits the

good man’s skull with a single sword stroke. A similar blow dispatches

Calogrenant, a knight of the Round Table who comes upon the scene and tries

to intervene. Only a miraculous fireball and a voice from heaven prevent the

long-suffering Bors from finally smiting his brother.

Yet shortly before this quarrel, even Bors, one of the three companions who

completes the Grail quest, fights what at first seems the fairly standard

romance battle, defending a lady against her sister’s champion. That conflict

won, he goes sturdily to work against the sister’s vassals:

Bors approached all those who held land from her and said that he would destroy them

unless they gave it up. Many became vassals of the younger sister, but those who chose

not to were killed, disinherited, or banished. Thus did Bors’ prowess restore the lady to

the lofty position that the king had granted her.

Of course Bors later learns from a Cistercian abbot that the lady he has

defended represents Holy Church, that her troublesome sister is the Old Law,

and that the king is Christ. His fighting has indeed been in a good cause and,

more than tolerable, has been laudable. This is militia, not malitia.

He likewise passes the sexual test, steadfastly maintaining his chastity, even

when a beautiful and rich woman tells him how much she longs for him, even

when she and twelve high-born ladies threaten to jump off the castle walls if

he will not give the great lady his love. Of course they are all revealed as

demons once they do jump; the Devil has been testing Bors.

Perceval learns these lessons in more than one setting. He has a close call

with sexual temptation: slipping into bed with a demon in alluringly feminine

form, he is only saved when his glance falls on the red cross inscribed on his

sword pommel. The ‘lady’ and her silk tent disappear in a flash and a puff of

smoke, leaving the tell-tale sulphurous stench of hell. A distraught Perceval

stabs himself through the left thigh in penance.

Alone on his island, surrounded by wild beasts, Perceval trusts in God’s

help, and the text again delivers an important message: ‘Thus did he depend

more heavily on divine aid than on his sword, for he saw clearly that without

18 Hector notes that he has met more than twenty Round Table companions, all complaining

of the lack of adventure.

God’s help, earthly prowess and knighthood alone could not save him.’ Yet

there is always a role for prowess. When the miraculous ship comes to him

while he is alone on this island, its passenger, ‘a man robed like a priest in surplice

and alb and crowned with a band of white silk [which] . . . bore a text

which glorified Our Lord’s most holy names’, proceeds to instruct him about

chivalric duty; he speaks specifically about the courage and hard-hearted determination

that must inform an ideal knight’s prowess:

[God] would try you to determine whether you are indeed his faithful servant and true

knight, even as the order of chivalry demands. For since you are come to such a high

estate, no earthly fear of peril should cause your heart to quail. For the heart of a knight

must be so hard and unrelenting towards his suzerain’s foe that nothing in the world

can soften it. And if he gives way to fear, he is not of the company of the knights and

veritable champions, who would sooner meet death in battle than fail to uphold the

quarrel of their lord.19

Perceval, Bors, and Galahad put this advice into practice in a telling scene at

Castle Carcelois late in the romance. Attacked by hostile knights from this castle

who demand that they yield, the three companions exclaim that they would

not think of surrender. They attack and kill some of their challengers and follow

those who sought survival by flight right into the castle hall. There, the

three heroes ‘set about cutting them down like so many dumb beasts’.

Their success, however, leads to expressed feelings of guilt as they survey the

bloody detritus of their victory. Bors tries to palliate their sense of guilt by suggesting

that they had acted as agents of divine vengeance against men who

deserved to die. Galahad will have none of it, at least until he can be sure they

truly acted by God’s will. The words are scarcely out of his mouth when a

white-robed priest, bearing Christ’s body in a chalice, comes upon the scene.

Though at first ‘unnerved by the sight of such a carnage’, the holy man soon

recovers and provides the explanation Galahad required, and in the most

glowing terms:

Believe me, Sir, never did knights labour to better purpose; if you lived until the end of

time I do not think you could perform a work of mercy to compare with this. I know

for certain it was Our Lord who sent you here to do this work, for nowhere in the

world were men who hated Him as much as the three brothers who were masters of

this castle. In their great wickedness they had so suborned the inmates of this place that

they were grown worse than infidels and did nothing but what affronted God and Holy

Church.

Quest and Questioning in Romance 259

19 The lord in question here is clearly God, yet the language is very earthly and knightly, and

the emphasis is on serving in arms.

These men, the companions learn, had raped and killed their sister, imprisoned

their father, murdered clerics, and razed chapels. God himself had visited

the imprisoned father, the priest tells them, bringing the news that three of his

servants would appear and take revenge for the shame caused by the evil sons.

Despite their commendable concerns, the three successful companions on the

quest have thus corrected violence hateful in the sight of God and of his

Church with sword strokes blessed by highest heaven.

As an allegory, a spiritual fable, the Queste is not, of course, primarily concerned

with prowess; but it is addressing and drawing on a way of life that was

itself primarily concerned with prowess, in a world that was much troubled by

violence. Teaching and encouraging the spiritual life, never a light task,

becomes so much more daunting when the principal figures in the story live

by the use of edged weapons. The quests of the Grail companions thus deliver

significant messages on questions that have concerned us throughout this

book.

Of all the knights engaged on the quest, only these three companions, Bors,

Perceval, and Galahad, finally come to see God and to be united mystically

with him by means of the Grail. All three are model practitioners of controlled

and righteous prowess; two are virgins, the third at least chaste; all humbly

learn the foundations of their religion from hermits and heavenly messengers

who interpret their adventures for them, symbol by symbol. Bors alone, having

experienced this Pentecostal apotheosis of chivalry, can actually return to

the world, to the Arthurian court.

However much the Queste edges clerical ideals closer to the grasp of knights,

it is, finally, not very accommodating, not very sanguine about the yield of the

harvest. The offer of quasi-monastic chivalry may have been generous from the

vantage point of the monks; but it was surely leagues beyond the grasp or,

probably even the desire of most knights in the world. Perhaps we would not

be wrong to imagine them reading or listening with more attention and appreciation

as great sword strokes flash and as God reveals himself directly to his

good warriors than when one of the hermits delivers a homily on the merits of

virginity.

Whoever wrote the Queste may well have understood the likelihood that

knights absorbed the text through just such a filter. Certainly, the author himself

strays from strict clerical views as he advances ideas of decided importance.

He presents a non-Petrine notion of the origins and succession of the clergy,

for one thing; he accepts knightly participation in tournaments, for another.

Moreover, he is unstinting in his praise for prowess of the right sort, exercised

by the right sort. Clearly, reform required the carrot as well as the stick; clearly,

even an allegory such as this attempts to build a bridge between clergie and

chevalerie. But the bridge is dauntingly high, all but obscured in idealistic

mists, and its pathway is barely wide enough to accommodate a mounted

knight.20

The Death of King Arthur

In one sense our second example is well named, for The Death of King Arthur

(La Mort le roi Artu), written about 1230–5 as the final part of the original

Lancelot–Grail or Vulgate cycle, tells the tragic and compelling story of the

collapse of the Arthurian world and the death of the king.21 The romance

could with equal justice, however, be called ‘The Ascent of Lancelot’, for this

is precisely what a central theme of quest in the story reveals.22 In the process

of narrating Lancelot’s transformation, it offers another route to ideal knighthood.

Though closely related to the text we have just examined from the same

cycle, it differs from the Queste in important ways.

Above all, the lively spirituality of The Death of King Arthur is almost totally

free from ecclesiastical dogma, from standard religious forms and practices

(even confession and communion), and from the sermonizing voices which

tirelessly explain meaning and prescribe knightly behaviour in the Queste. Even

the extra-Christian force of Fortune plays a powerful role. Jean Frappier captures

the character of religion in The Death of King Arthur concisely:

The great originality of the author of the Mort Artu lies in locating the conquest of the

Grail within a man’s soul. The Grail is interior, and the adventures that lead to it are

psychological adventures. The personal experience of evil, not the sermon of a hermit,

turns Lancelot toward holiness.23

Quest and Questioning in Romance 261

20 The bridge referred to here is not that which Frappier suggested between earthly and mystical

chivalry, which Bogdanow condemns as a misunderstanding of the entire theology of the

Queste. Rather, it is an attempt to show knights the true, mystical nature of chivalry as the road to

salvation. Bogdanow believes that the text is fully negative about the majority of knights, as was

St Bernard himself: see Bogdanow, ‘An Interpretation’.

21 Unless otherwise stated, quotations in this section are from Frappier, ed., La Mort, 13–19,

140, 151, 152, 185–6, 203, 2, 13, 140, 169, 118; Cable, tr., Death of King Arthur, 33–7, 135, 144, 145, 171,

185, 24, 33, 135, 158, 117; Lacy, tr., Death of Arthur, 94–6, 127, 130, 139, 143, 91, 94, 127, 135, 121. A

useful bibliography of modern scholarship on this romance is provided in Baumgartner, La Mort,

16–24, a volume which reprints important segments of this scholarship. See also Dufournet, ed.,

La Mort, which prints twelve essays by French scholars, and also includes a bibliography.

22 This is the interpretation of Frappier, La Mort, and of Cable’s introduction to his translation,

Death of King Arthur. Cf the comment of Chênerie: ‘[C]e roman, qui semble raconter avec la mort

du roi, la fin d’un monde idéal, développe en réalité un véritable panégyrique du héros

chevaleresque et courtois que fut Lancelot, un modèle de la chevalerie terrienne, après l’impossible

réalisation de la chevalerie celestiele, figurée dans le mythe du Graal et la disparition de Galaad’:

‘Preudome’, 82.

23 Frappier, La Mort, 235 (my translation).

Here is knightly lay piety in pure form. Even if the author was, as seems likely,

a cleric with a good Latinate education, it seems equally likely that he was one

of that number of clerics who lived in the world and was comfortable with the

details and with the ethos of the tournament and the battlefield. His guiding

ideas are thoroughly Christian (and Cistercian): he stresses the need for the

great virtue of caritas in humans and the saving presence of divine grace in

their lives. These ideas show themselves powerfully, if obliquely, in this text;

however, they never take on explicitly ecclesiastical formulation or issue from

ecclesiastical authority.24

The spiritual height to which Lancelot will rise is emphasized by the level to

which he has slipped at the start of the tale. He cannot stay away from the

queen for even a month, though he had promised a life of celibacy to his hermit-

confessor in the Queste; he has even become fairly open about it. About

the vainglorious joy of tournaments there could be no question; while in full

repentance, he had even (as we have seen) frankly told the hermit that he could

scarcely give up the life of arms. In The Death of King Arthur he fights—splendidly,

of course—in the opening tournament held at Winchester.

The issues are, once again, sex and violence, and the consequences of

Lancelot’s adultery and his fighting quickly set in motion the events that lead

to chivalric Götterdämmerung. At the same time, Lancelot’s experience of

anguished suffering, and the outpouring of God’s grace for him, begin his

spiritual transformation. It comes in the upheaval following the open discovery

of his relationship with Queen Guinevere, and his dramatic rescue which

saves her from death by burning. The result is war, with Lancelot versus King

Arthur, goaded on by Gawain, whose three brothers Lancelot has killed in the

dramatic rescue.

As the war goes on, Lancelot banishes pride; he makes kings of Bors and

Lionel, giving up his own earthly dominion in clear witness of the transformation

at work in him. He soon shows the change even more clearly in his

subordination of his own vast prowess.

Seeing Arthur’s avenging army encamped against him around the walls of

Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot feels only great sadness and great love:

When Lancelot saw how the castle was besieged by King Arthur, the man he had most

loved in the world and whom he now knew to be his mortal enemy, he was so saddened

that he did not know what to do, not because he feared for himself but because he loved

the king.

24 See the discussion of Frappier, ed., La Mort, 21–4, for questions of authorship, pp. 219–58 for

a thorough discussion of religious ideas.

After his secret efforts to establish peace have come to naught and the battle

in the field has begun in earnest, Lancelot proves his love in the eyes of all.

Arthur shows wondrous prowess (especially wondrous for a man aged 92),

and inspires all his men. When he attacks Lancelot in person, Lancelot only

raises his shield to save his own life and will strike not one blow. Hector, however,

reacts in the standard knightly fashion and swiftly gives Arthur a blow on

the helm that leaves him not knowing whether it is day or night. Thus he

thinks he has set up Lancelot for the grand stroke: ‘My lord, cut off his head,

and our war will be over.’ Instead, Lancelot rescues the fallen Arthur and

securely remounts him in the saddle, before quitting the field.

He makes an even greater sacrifice shortly thereafter: he subordinates his

own mortal love by agreeing to return Queen Guinevere. Though his companions

mistakenly ask what fear of Arthur has led to his action, Lancelot is

actually placing her honour before his own desires; he fears, in fact, that he

may die because of missing her so much. The same concern for her honour

apparently leads him to lie to Arthur by denying that any adultery ever took

place.

Ever unforgiving, Gawain convinces Arthur that the war must be prosecuted

to the end, to the downfall and death of Lancelot. Gawain demands a

single combat. Having already spared Arthur, Lancelot now likewise spares his

true arch-enemy Gawain, after defeating him decisively.25 As he explains to

Hector, ‘I should not kill him for all the world, because I think he is too noble.

Moreover, he is the man, out of all those in the world that have meant anything

to me, that I have most loved, and still do, excepting only the king.’ At

this time Gawain himself is still hoping that God will be so ‘courteous’ as to

allow him finally to kill Lancelot and at last taste sweet revenge.26

But Lancelot meets Arthur to talk peace again. In fact, he convinces a very

reluctant Bors and Lionel to dismount in show of respect for the man they

continue to denounce as their mortal foe. The generous peace plan Lancelot

proposes, however, is rejected by Gawain, who ignores Arthur’s tearful

entreaties. Even another single combat fails to generate wrath in Lancelot.

Asked why he did not, once again, kill Gawain, as was within his power, he

responds tellingly, ‘I could not do it because my heart, which directs me,

would not allow it for anything.’

Quest and Questioning in Romance 263

25 On the nature of the term preudome, so often applied to Lancelot in this text, see Chênerie,

‘Preudome’. For the view this text takes of tournaments as diversions from the highest knightly

activity, see Lachet, ‘Les tournois d’antan’.

26 As Boutet suggests, only Lancelot retains mesure; Gawain, and even Arthur, show demesure

and think along the lines of vengeance and private war; the great men of the court, with latent jealousy

of Lancelot working in them, want to show their prowess in battle against him: see ‘Arthur

et son mythe’, 50–6.

Invasion by Roman enemies and treason by Mordred at home complete the

downfall of Arthur’s world playing contrapuntally to the spiritual rise of

Lancelot. Gawain is mortally wounded and comes finally to a new vision of the

good, asking Lancelot for forgiveness. Lancelot comes to offer help to Arthur,

but is too late. On the site of the climactic battle between Arthur and Mordred

he finds the principal combatants already slain; he can only finish off

Mordred’s supporters and, with justice, kill the traitor’s two sons.

This work done, Lancelot rides off in a kind of fog, almost aimlessly, it

seems. But the transformation that has been working in Lancelot leads him to

the logical conclusion of his spiritual odyessey. In a chapel attached to a poor

hermitage he finds the Archbishop of Canterbury and his cousin Bleobleeris,

robed as hermit-priests before the altar. Lancelot joins them in the fullest

sense, becomes an ascetic hermit and priest, lives out a new form of heroism

on a diet of bread, water, and roots. After his death, the archbishop dreams of

angels carrying off his soul to bliss.

This theme of Lancelot’s spiritual journey is, for good reasons, stressed in

analyses of the text. But the author continually drives home the superiority of

Lancelot’s transformed chivalry in another way important for analysis: he

shows the problems caused by the accustomed practices and attitudes of most

of his knightly contemporaries. Indeed, the tale opens with Arthur angrily

establishing the precise scorecard of Gawain’s victims while on the Grail quest.

Gawain’s answer delivers the author’s message on this topic explicitly:

I can tell you in truth that I killed eighteen by my own hand, not because I was a better

knight than any of the others, but since misfortune affected me more than any of my

companions. Indeed, it did not come about through my chivalry, but through my sin.

You have made me reveal my shame.27

Shortly after that, in the tournament at which the king proclaims to keep up

knightly spirit in an age of declining adventures (‘because he did not want his

companions to cease wearing arms’), Arthur has thought it necessary to prohibit

Gawain and Gaheriet from participating; Lancelot will be present and

Arthur fears bad feeling and combat which goes beyond even rough sport.

In fact, the danger of the great war that will finally doom the Round Table

swirls like a malignant mist throughout even the early action of the poem.

Knightly vengeance and the setting of kin against kin is, of course, a theme of

the entire text. The author works the theme in miniature as well. When

Arthur’s knights besiege Lancelot in the Joyeuse Garde, Lancelot cannot bring

himself to spring the pincer movement he has skilfully prepared. As a result,

27 An interesting redefinition of chivalry seems to be intended here; victory through fine

prowess is simply sin if it brings about the death of other knights, a result hard to avoid.

‘Arthur’s men felt more confident than before, and said among themselves that

if Lancelot had had large forces, nothing would have stopped him from coming

out to attack them and the whole army, because no true knight would willingly

suffer injury from his enemy.’ Lancelot’s love for his enemies is

inconceivable to them.

The nobility of pure prowess is hymned time and again by one character

after another. Chivalry is repeatedly equated with deeds done with weapons,

with feats of arms (chevaleries); prowess is equated with nobility, great blows

being noted specifically as proof of nobility. Little wonder that Lancelot’s men

rejoice when they learn that he will lead them out of the city of Gaunes against

King Arthur’s army the next morning: ‘most of them were pleased and happy

about this, because they preferred war to peace’. Little wonder that some more

thoughtful characters in the romance repeatedly speak their fears—as Bors

does when he foresees the collapse of the Round Table—of the ‘war that will

never end in our lifetimes’.

The author, in other words, not only shows an ideal spiritual path for the

regeneration of knighthood, he shows the dangers that quickly accumulate if

that path is not taken. To think only in terms of victory on the tourney

grounds and the battlefield, to equate chivalry simply with prowess, to give in

to sensual love whatever the consequences, to open the gates for vengeance

fortified with kin loyalties, is to slide toward endless, destructive war.28

Robert the Devil/Sir Gowther

The numerous romances which sprouted from the story of Robert the Devil

doubly recommend themselves as the final case study for this chapter. In the

first place, these romances show nearly fathomless depths of knightly evil followed

by repentance that elevates the reformed sinner to the skies, with the

problem of violence a central issue in the double process. Second, the basic

story proved to be genuinely popular and spoke its messages repeatedly in one

European language after another through the centuries that concern us—and

Quest and Questioning in Romance 265

28 In the latter half of the fourteenth century this gripping story was rewritten in a north

Midlands dialect of Middle English as a work only about a fifth as long as the French original.

Benson, ed., Morte Arthur. The narrative frame is retained and the focus is once again on Lancelot

and on all of the difficult issues raised by his role in Arthur’s court and his love for Arthur’s queen.

But, as in the Mort Artu he is not condemned; rather, he appears as an admired hero who gains in

self-knowledge and the grace of God, who transcends not only merely earthly chivalry based on

war, but merely earthly love as well. He thus stands in marked contrast to Gawain, who falls from

his previous reputation as peacemaker into sterile, unrelenting vengeance. As Barron notes, the

poet ‘does not preach’, but conveys his messages more subtly, always showing the impossibility of

perfection and the looming danger resulting from merely human forms, even when they are practised

in the hope of perfection, even when they are such valued qualities as the prowess of Lancelot

or his mutual love with Guinevere. See the discussion in Barron, English Medieval Romance, 142–7.

well beyond.29 There are many texts; to keep our case study manageable, the

analysis will draw on three that seem especially useful: Robert le Diable, written

in Old French in the late twelfth century; Sir Gowther, the Middle English

rewriting from the latter part of the fourteenth century; and the printed

English text of Robert’s story produced by Wynkyn de Worde shortly after

1500.30

Exactly why Robert/Gowther is so lost in evil at the beginning of his career

depends upon the text. In the Old French romance and in Wynkyn de Worde’s

text, he has been conceived after an anguished appeal to the Devil by the wife

of the duke of Normandy, desperate to save her long-childless marriage (ll.

25–73).31 In Sir Gowther (set in Estryke, rather than Normandy), a ‘shaggy

fiend’ who has taken the duke’s form is actually the father of the child, impregnating

the duke’s wife beneath a Chestnut tree in a classic scene familiar to

folkloric tradition (ll. 52–81).

The child grows abnormally in every sense—at seven times the rate of physical

growth of ordinary children, for example. The Middle English text gives

him an inordinate appetite that leads him to suck nine wet-nurses to death (ll.

109–20) and to bite off his own mother’s nipple with his premature teeth (ll.

127–32). Yet at fourteen he is a perfect specimen of a young man: ‘none is as

beautiful as Robert’, the French romance says (nien est si biaus comme

Roibers’; l. 123).

With appropriate precociousness he is early entering that dangerous age of

turbulence and disruptive violence which medieval writers called ‘youth’ and

which Georges Duby studied in a famous article.32 Physically, if not emotionally,

mature, these young men often formed into bands, and wandered, gambled,

philandered, and fought in tournaments and in wars. Duby thinks that

they ‘formed the primary audience for all the literature that is called chivalric’.33

29 Breul, ed., Sir Gowther, 45–134, traces the widespread telling of this story.

30 Quotations in this section, unless otherwise stated, are from Löseth, ed., Robert le Diable;

Laskaya and Salisbury, eds., Breton Lays; Wynkyn de Worde’s printed text, from Cambridge

University Library, 1502?: ‘here beginneth the lyf of the moste myschevoust Robert the deuyll

whiche was afterwarde called the servaunt of god’, published in modern print in Thoms, ed., Early

English Prose Romances, 169–206. Warm thanks to Anne McKinley whose fine seminar paper studied

these texts when I had all but forgotten their existence. Interesting discussions of Gowther in

relation to the other texts appear in Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 144–78; Novelli, ‘Sir Gowther’; and

Breul, Sir Gowther. Vanderlinde, ‘Sir Gowther’, argues for enough difference between the two surviving

manuscripts of Sir Gowther to consider them essentially separate poems, sharing the same

source. These differences (which will interest many) do not seem sufficiently great for the issues investigated

here to require separate analyses of the two texts. These texts are printed in Mills, ed., Six

Middle English Romances, 148–68; Rumble, ed., Breton Lays, 178–204; and Novelli, Sir Gowther, 83–157.

31 Wynkyn de Worde text in Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 171–2.

32 Duby, ‘Dans la France du Nord-Ouest’. Trempler has even used the story of Robert as a case

study of adolescent destructive narcissism: see ‘Robert der Teufel’. The author is interested in the

origins of delinquency and destructive hate.

Gowther seems a parodic exemplar of these turbulent, wandering, violent

youths. Having from an alloy of iron and steel fashioned a great falchion (a

heavy sword with a single curved cutting edge) that he alone can swing,

Gowther sets enthusiastically to work.34 Robert’s band of like-minded fellows

(in the French romance) is composed of robbers in the woods near Rouen.

Behind him now are the youthful pranks of smashing beautiful church windows

or throwing ashes into the mouths of yawning knights (ll. 132–3, 157–9).

If he had long ‘set by no correccyon’, as Wynkyn de Worde says, going on to

tell us Robert had eviscerated his ‘scole mayster’ with a bodkin, he was now

‘able to bere armes’—the real weapons of warriors.35 If neighbouring children

have for years feared him as ‘Roberte the Deuyll’, giving him his name, he now

sets about troubling a much wider neighbourhood. The French romance says

plaintes (legal complaints against his actions), come daily to his father, the

duke (ll. 165–6). By the age of twenty, he has been excommunicated by the

pope and banished by his father, to no avail. He regularly kills merchants and

pilgrims; he has burned twenty abbeys to the ground (ll. 196–7, 199–204,

221–2). Gowther continues his devilish campaign by raping wives and virgins,

hanging priests on hooks, and forcing friars to jump off cliffs. In the Middle

English romance he has already been knighted, that ceremony changing him

not a whit (ll. 189–204).

The Old French romance makes much more of the effort to reform Robert

by enrolling him in the ranks of chivalry. When his father swears he will settle

all by drowning the lad (ll. 229–34), the mother suggests knighting him

instead: ‘Make your son a knight. You’ll see him give up his wickedness, cruelty

and evil deeds when he has been made a knight. Robert has done evil

deeds in his youth [bachelerie]. He’ll do good deeds as soon as he becomes a

knight.’36 It is a classic statement of ideal knightly reform. The intent is highly

interesting: so is the failure. Even though the quid pro quo is carefully

explained and Robert enthusiastically agrees, dismissing his band of robbers in

apparent enthusiasm for a new life (ll. 254–64), he cannot stem the power of

evil within. At the inevitable tournament held to celebrate his new state, he

begins his ‘bad chivalry [ses chevaleries males]’ (l. 281). Following a wild night

of partying—no vigil in a church—Robert fights as if the tourney were war to

Quest and Questioning in Romance 267

33 Duby, ‘Dans la France du Nord-Ouest’, tr., Cheyette, 205.

34 Illustrations of falchions from the Douce Apocalypse and a picture of a surviving example

appear in Prestwich, Armies and Warfare, 28, 30. The illustrations show the Devil’s cavalry, riding

lion-headed horses, as noted on the dust jacket of John Maddicott’s Simon de Montfort.

35 Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 173, 174. Young heroes of romance tradition did

not rip out their teacher’s entrails, but more than one did beat them severely. See Chapter 7.

36 Combining Löseth, ed., Robert ll. 239–44 from ms. A, with several lines from ms B, given in

a note, Ibid., 16.

the death; he wants to decapitate all those whom he has unhorsed. His ferocity

disrupts this tournament and his subsequent tour of the tournament circuit

across France spreads terror; back in Normandy, he renews his assaults on clerics

(ll. 275–322).37

The action comes to a climax as he attacks a nunnery. If Robert plays Raoul

here, re-enacting the infamous scene at Origny from Raoul de Cambrai, he

descends even deeper into the pit of sin by personally thrusting his sword into

the breasts of the nuns, killing fifty of the sixty religious with his own hands,

before setting the torch to the structures (ll. 341–52).38

At this point, the blood-red tide begins slowly to turn.39 Robert finds himself

alone before the scene of desolation. The loud neighing of his warhorse

reverberates. None of his men will answer his call, even when summoned by

name. Falling into unaccustomed introspection, he wonders about the course

of his life and its relationship to his birth; with the aid of the Holy Spirit, he

dimly realizes he could yet be God’s friend, and goes, soaked in blood, to see

his fearful mother; with threats, he finally extracts the painful truth from her

(ll. 353–468). In Sir Gowther, recognition that he has been formed in evil by his

fiendish father comes from a wise old duke whose observations send Gowther

to his mother, from whom he gets the truth, told with the dreaded falchion

poised over her heart (ll. 205–33).

Weeping with sorrow and shame, Robert/Gowther experiences conversion.

He will rid himself of devilish influence; he will go to Rome to seek absolution

from the pope himself. In the French romance he symbolically throws away

his sword and cuts his hair before setting off for Rome (ll. 465–8).40 Yet his sins

are so great, he learns in a hard-won papal audience, that even the pontiff cannot

set penance, nor yet can that archetypical figure of chivalric romance, the

holy hermit, to whom the pope sends him.41 It takes a hand from heaven, bearing

a little script, to establish what Robert must do: until released from the

penance, he must play the fool, provoking violence and derision in the streets;

he must play the mute, speaking not a word; he must eat only what he can

37 Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 175–7.

38 The early sixteenth-century text has Robert violate the sacred bond between knight and hermit:

Robert slays seven holy hermits and goes to see his mother, covered in their blood: l. 180.

39 Ms. B of Robert le Diable emphasizes the bloodiness of the slaughter: Löseth, ed., Robert le

Diable, 26. In Wynkyn de Worde’s version, Robert shows his change of life by killing all his company

of robbers before setting off for Rome. He deposits the keys to his forest robber’s nest, his

horse, and his sword with the head of an abbey he had ‘many tymes robbed’: Thoms, Early English

Prose Romances, 184–6.

40 In Sir Gowther he retains the falchion, as discussed below.

41 In the Wynkyn de Worde text the pope tells Robert (whose evil reputation he knows) that

he will ‘assoyle’ him, but wants a promise ‘that ye do no man harme’. Robert promises, ‘I will

neuer hurte Crysten creature’: Thoms, Early English Prose Romances, 187.

wrest from a dog’s mouth (ll. 490–885).42 This heaven-sent burden bears a

clear message: Robert must willingly suffer at least a few sparks of the raging

flames of violence he had inflicted on others and experience the slow burn of

shame; he must resolutely dethrone his heedless pride.43 The several texts elaborately

detail how thoroughly Robert/Gowther embraces and then for years

fulfils this penance, in full public view, in the streets of Rome and in the

emperor’s hall.

Then the Turks invade and all is thrown into confusion. Upon each of three

threats to Rome by the Sultan’s army, Robert/Gowther receives horse and

arms from heaven (either in response to his silent prayer, as in the French and

Middle English romances, or by direct divine command, according to

Wynkyn de Worde). Only the emperor’s mute daughter from her chamber

window witnesses the transformation of the fool into the saviour/knight.

Dressed in white armour and mounted on a white charger, the hero performs

wonders of prowess against the enemy in the field, saving Rome three times in

a row by emptying saddles, shearing off arms and legs, and spilling brains.44

Each time he then returns, divests himself of knightly horse and arms, and

becomes again the humble and unknown penitent.45 All imperial efforts to

detain and identify the white knight fail; the effort after the third battle even

results in Robert being wounded by Roman knights who would take him to

their chief (ll. 3414–500).

Resolution follows swiftly. The emperor’s mute daughter miraculously

begins to speak and is at last enabled plainly to say the truth about the fool in

the hall who is actually the White Knight. She produces as material proof the

lance-head which had wounded the knight, and which she had watched him

hide after he had painfully removed it. When the holy hermit releases Robert

from his penance, he joyfully tells his story openly (ll. 4490–866). In Sir

Gowther, the princess, who has steadily loved Gowther throughout his stay at

court, is given the privilege of pronouncing God’s forgiveness on him.

Gowther happily marries her and, upon the death of the emperor, takes the

crown himself, instituting a reign of peace and justice:

Quest and Questioning in Romance 269

42 Sir Gowther pictures the pope himself absolving Gowther and setting his penance, which is

condensed to two elements: silence and eating only what he can take from dogs. The Wynkyn de

Worde text is closer to the French romance, but the penance comes to the hermit in a dream.

43 Wynkyn de Worde draws the moral explicitly: ‘Now haue this in your myndes, ye proude

hertes and synners, thynke on Roberts grete penaunce and wylfull pouerte and how he so grete a

gentylman borne . . . hathe all forsaken for the saluacyon of his soule’: Thoms, ed., Early English

Prose Romances, 191.

44 Gowther even rescues the emperor himself and decapitates the Sultan: ll. 625–31.

45 The Middle English text gives him, on successive days of battle, black, red, and white

armour. Some scholars have suggested a progressive process of purging. See Marchalonis, ‘Sir

Gowther’, 20–3.

What mon so bydus hym for Godys loffe doo

He was ey redy bown theretoo,

And stod pore folke in styd,

And ryche men in hor ryght,

And halpe holy kyrke in all is myght (ll. 715–19).

(He was always ready for love of God to do what people asked, and supported both the

poor, and the rights of the powerful).46

The text printed by Wynkyn de Worde similarly ends with worldly as well

as spiritual happiness. Robert is even commanded by God to marry the

princess. He brings her to Normandy where he secures the peace, hanging a

troublesome knight who had bothered his mother after the death of his father.

A message from Rome hurries Robert there with an armed force to save the

emperor from his wicked seneschal. Though he cannot arrive in time—the

seneschal has already slain the emperor in battle—Robert does split the wicked

traitor’s head down to the teeth with one of his great sword blows and so saves

Rome yet again. He rules well over rich and poor alike. As a final boon, Robert

and his wife give Christendom a champion in their son who joins

Charlemagne in the endless fight against pagan forces.47

The French romance ends more starkly. Robert announces he has left the

world and will for nothing endanger his soul by re-entering it for even a day.

He rejects the appeal of four knights who have come from Normandy to tell

him of strife after the death of his parents there; he sets aside the Roman

princess and the claim to the imperial crown; and he goes to live with the holy

hermit outside Rome. He follows in that saintly man’s steps upon the hermit’s

death. For the rest of his life Robert serves God, who does many miracles for

him. At his death the Romans bury him with reverence in the church of St

John Lateran. Years later, a Frenchman, who has come to a council held to

make peace in many wars, takes Robert’s bones to a site near Le Puy and builds

an abbey over the new tomb. It is called the Abbey of St Robert (ll.

4490–5078).

For all their variance in detail, all three texts speak forcefully to a fear that

knightly prowess and pride, especially when spurred by the heedless energies

of youth, will turn to disruptive and destructive violence. The very devil is in

it. The best hope, the authors agree, lies in the shaping and restraining force of

religious ideals.

46 In the early sixteenth-century text the hermit releases Robert from his penance (as in the

French romance) and allows him to marry the princess (as in the Middle English romance): see

Thoms, ed., Early English Prose Romances, 199–203.

47 Ibid., 202–6.

Yet, as we have regularly seen in other texts, the authors take a view of

knightly prowess which has its twists and turns. Violence in the right causes is

enthusiastically endorsed. Wynkyn de Worde’s Robert ends his life as a model

hero from epic or romance, putting a rope round the neck of a Norman troublemaker,

putting his sword into the skull of a Roman traitor, and then ruling

well, even engendering a warrior son. The text of Sir Gowther valorizes a

rough-hewn chivalric atmosphere from the beginning by noting that at the

tournament to celebrate his wedding the duke who will be Gowther’s supposed

father is an expert tourneyer; the text proclaims that he unhorsed ten

men in the joust and cracked skulls generally in the mêlée (ll. 40–8). Gowther

himself does not throw away his sword, as Robert does, upon going on pilgrimage

to Rome. Specifically told to discard his beloved falchion by the pope,

he refuses; it is again in his expert hands on the battlefield against the Turks.

Though the text condemns Gowther in his wild days for slaying his mother’s

retainers with this great sword, cutting through both rider and horse with

powerful blows, when, later, he cuts through the Sultan’s men and mounts,

the action is, of course, praised in the manner of any great sword stroke in

romance. The falchion seems almost to function as a symbol of the force of his

knighthood, which can be turned to good or ill use.48

If in the French romance Robert has horribly stained his sword with the

blood of nuns early in the text, he then gloriously stains the sword lent from

heaven with the blood of the Sultan’s men.49 This text lingers admiringly over

Robert’s arming and his stunning appearance in the white armour as he prepares

to go into action (ll. 1840–58); it can equate chivalry with prowess, noting

that the emperor ‘saw the beautiful chivalry that Robert did in his presence’

on the battlefield (‘la chevalerie bele / Que Robers devant lui a faite’; ll. 1935–7,

my emphasis); in standard romance fashion it can likewise praise the hall full

of the emperor’s ‘good knights who never were without war’ (ll. 2770–3; they

are called ‘Li flors de la chevalerie’ at l. 2205); and it notes that the final victory

feast seated not only seasoned knights but even the ‘bachelors with the most

prowess’ (l. 3602).50

Complexities of attitude regarding prowess thus put in their appearance,

as always. All three texts, however, begin with a knight whose prowess is

Quest and Questioning in Romance 271

48 Swordblows against mother’s retainers, (see n. 30) ll. 166–7; against Turks, 592–4. For comments

on symbolism of the falchion, see Hopkins, Sinful Knights, 158.

49 Killing of nuns: see especially B text, p. 26 n. Killing of Turks: ll. 1955–60. In each case he is

described as plunging his sword into the victim’s breast.

50 The emperor says of the White Knight at the third banquet that no knight could be as good

as he, no living man so filled with prowess: ll. 3797–3800. Even the emperor’s daughter is once

described as ‘prous’ (ll. 2380), and his ancient bloodhound is praised as formerly ‘prous’

(ll. 1089–90). When praise flows, prowess seems naturally to command a space in the encomium.

exercised in unparalleled wickedness; all change his practice of violence by the

end, and transform him into something much more socially and spiritually

desirable, the proportions in the reformed knight varying with the author.

Not every romance pressed a plan of improvement upon knighthood with the

intensity and the skill of those we have considered in this chapter. The quest

pattern could easily become an interlace of episodic adventures without the

spiritual or social critique or the hopes for reform evident in our several examples.

Yet the idea of quest remains basic, and the tension between sets of high

ideals and the obviously more tawdry reality in need of reform is nearly always

present, always working, in romance. As W. R. J. Barron writes:

To the fundamental human concerns of the folk-tale, the romance proper adds a social

ideal based not upon life as it is known through the senses but as the imagination,

inspired by a vision of what might be rather than by objective fact, dreams of it. . . . It

is not satisfied with the trappings of realism but strives for the conviction that the world

it projects has existed in some past golden age, or will be in some millennium to come,

or might be if men were more faithful to ideals than experience suggests them capable

of being.51

51 Barron, English Medieval Romance, 4.