Sir Gowther

The Text: Sir Gowther survives in two manuscripts, British Museum MS Royal 17.B.43 and National Library of Scotland MS Advocates' 19.3.1, the latter apparently stored by the lawyers' librarian on the shelf below or above the Auchinleck manuscript (19.2.1).

The Tale:   Sir Gowther at first might seem so weird that it could have no similarity with any other Middle English narrative, but it should not surprise you that it is a member of a fine old family of tales whose protagonist usually is called "Robert the Devil." Some of his ancestry also resembles that given to Merlin in the "Suite de Merlin" (see ll. 10 & 97-99). The devils are envious of the Incarnation and try to match the feat, but their "Mary"’s piety causes her to confess at the last minute. The lad is supernaturally gifted but merely amoral, an instrument of fate, rather than a demon. The "Robert" of the other tale cycle is the mythologized version of the historical duke who fathered William of Normandy (AKA "the Bastard," then "the Conqueror").  Duke Robert's wild youth apparently spawned a popular series of tales about his antics (compare the "wild Hal" tales which underpin the Falstaff material in the Henry IV plays?). Why in the world would people love to hear such tales told of their rulers’ ancestors?

Study questions—

1) This one’s another variant on the "Saint’s Life" genre that informs the style and values of Emaré and The Erle of Tolous. Here, the Pope even plays a crucial role and the role of "saint" is sort of split between Gowther and the wonderfully named "domme lady," but by the end the knight has been renamed (Emare/Egare) St. Gotlake and has his own miracle-working shrine. Not bad for a kid with such a delinquent youth! What conclusion are we asked to draw here?

2) The author’s tone, though masked by the tail-rhyme stanza’s relentless jingling, is remarkably light and ironic. He’s at his most chipper when describing the horrible things Gowther does to all and sundry. Can you find a way to read this "rooting for the monster" technique in the context of the other Breton lais?

3) The childless wife’s prayer is another phenomenon which would be all too familiar to the medieval audience, so they might be connoisseurs of the genre. What did she say wrong to give the fiends their warrant to intervene?

4) The garden seduction takes us back to "Degaré," but also to Genesis (and later, to "Kyng Orfew") as a re-enactment of a woman’s betrayal in a place symbolic of Nature. Arthur, too, is born of an assignation in which (by Merlin’s magic) his mother believes she is making love to her husband instead of their enemy, Uther Pendragon. The lady in this case, however, has more self-control and wit than her sisters. How does she recover from her betrayal?

5) The christening of the child was enough, in Merlin’s case, to save him from the fiend’s plan. However, in Gowther’s case, the effects seem sadly inefficient. First the wet-nurses, and then everyone in the kingdom (especially the religious) discover there’s something dangerously odd about this boy. His prodigious growth, rapid and painful (for Mom) weaning, and quick development as a warrior seem to please his father who "hym myght not chastithe" (143). What’s being satirized here and who is likely to be laughing at it?

6) The same satire begun in 5 above runs riot in Gowther’s career after his father’s death (151-98). The narrator’s barely disguised glee makes these crimes seem like childish pranks and it’s as if the entire moral universe of the "Saint’s Life" is turned upside down. What’s up here? Might this be part of the "carnivalesque" which Bakhtin said was an essential counterpart to rigorous medieval socio-moral order? How might that work if it were true?

7) The "good old erll" who reveals the young lad’s parentage to him is one of those marvelous events which shows the narrator’s reverence for the "old ways" and the conservative agenda of his era. It also sets up Gowther’s confrontation with his mother in which the paternal sword at her breast reveals the secret of his true father’s identity, and the tale turns on a dime toward the regeneration of this little devil. Though the old earl is left behind in charge of Gowther’s patrimony, he is not forgotten by the tale, and his reward at the end is part of the narrative’s emotional economy. Look for it again in "Kyng Orfew." What does it mean to invest this man’s position with such narrative significance?

8) The Pope’s annoyance with Gowther’s behavior is understandable, even understated (!), but the penance he assigns that bad boy is quite particular. What’s the logic (narrative, moral, etc.) underlying its prohibitions and instructions? Don’t think too long about that greyhound as a waiter, but coursing dogs like that would have been commonplace beneath (and on?) the tables of a noble household—see the January plate of the Duc du Barry’s "Tres Riche Heures" for an illustration.   The great hall is embellished by the tapestry behind the feast table, a scene depicting the troops of Troy issuing forth (in full medieval armor, of course) to confront the Greeks. The chamberlain in the middle ground of the image says "Approche approche!" ("Come near, come near!") to invite the guests to receive the duke's largesse. Note the duke's pet dogs have free run of the table, which is loaded with small roast fowl and other delicacies, and the duke's courser (the lean hound below the table) is being carefully fed choice scraps by an attendant. The duke's largesse extends to all (cf. ll. 60-84, 491-95, 875-900, 970-1028).

9) The emperor’s household is typically organized to enable social differentiation by hierarchy, both by tables and by seats. The steward is the enforcer of that hierarchy. What codes does Gowther violate in his new role as "God’s fool"?

10) The "domme lady" whose marriage is delayed until someone can cure her is a variant on that folk tale "problem princess" motif, but it also sets up a curative situation that mates neatly with Gowther’s moral reformation. Plug in the Sowdan of Percé’s and his paynim hordes seeking her hand, and you have a great star-vehicle for Gowther’s triumph. The color-coded battles (black, red, white) indicate the stages of his reform as he chops and slashes his way through the unbelievers who are the medium upon which his contrition is written. However, his wounding while rescuing the emperor in the final battle has an unfortunate effect on the "domme lady"’s sense of balance and the whole conventional happy-ending seems impossible. That the emperor "wyssh and went to mete" just as he did after all the other battles may seem preposterous, but remember that the game we’re playing is ritualistic, not realistic. So what does the author gain from the peculiar way in which Gowther’s release from the papal penance is staged, and how does the "good deed" cycle act in counterpoint to the "bad deed" period of Gowther’s life?

For some paper topic ideas involving the lais use of conflicting cultural codes, click here.