"Sir Degaré" (anon.)
The Text: Sir Degaré survives in six manuscripts and three early editions from unique sources, so weve got more evidence of its text than we had for poor Sir Launfal with its single surviving manuscript. Among the six MSS, we find it packaged with "Lay le Freine" and "King Orfeo" in Auchinleck MS. Advocates 19.2.1, a famous compilation of romances which you can access online at the National Library of Scotland website (co-edited by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins). Visit this site and click on the "Contents" link on the upper left corner of the page. That will give you an idea of the context in which a medieval reader might have encountered this wayward knight. Rather than a "book" about a single person, or containing a collection thematically unified by the topic "Breton lais" (e.g., Thomas Rumble's print edition), this manuscript resembles a specialized library. It mingles secular chivalric romances ("Of Artour and Merlyn") with religious narratives like saints' legends, a short chronicle, and the "Battle Abbey Roll," a list of last names of important landowners near this this famous East Sussex monastery. (See line 127 for a name we will become familiar with.)
The Tale: The lai's unusual combination of the faerie knight with the foundling motif, the test of the suitor/bride, and the search for the lost father sets up a number of possible collisions between story motivations which the author avoids fairly well. A skeptical reader will immediately see one glaring problem in the "glove test." Can you tell why it is designed to produce results that are slightly weird?
1) The faerie knight is a counterpart of Launfals Tryamour, but notice how different the event seems when the faerie is male and the mortal is female? Whats up here? How might this kind of narrative be operating on its readers/hearers psychologies? If you compare his speech protesting his love with Tryamours youll find some interesting parallels. Perhaps its part of an elaborate faerie-abduction scheme medieval tabloids covered with breathless anticipation? But seriously, consider the two examples of on kind or genre of event.
2) The knights gift to her of the pointless sword obviously carries a symbolic connotation for the noble audience, where sword-wearing was a visual symbol of aristocratic power. Hence the need for the vassal to come to the homage ceremony "ungirt," not wearing the sword, which would be donned after the ceremony had put his hands into the power of the lord's. Some noble families used "title swords" as evidence of their right to hold lands and titles (see Richard Firth Green's A Crisis of Truth). The sword Arthur draws from its enchanted stone/anvil is presented to the feuding barons as just such a title sword whose easy possession will identify the man who should rule England. So the pointless sword given as an heirloom for the faerie knight's son clearly signifies some sort of inheritance, but one that is lacking something important! What would the knight's legacy be lacking in terms noble families would understand? Beyond that, what else might it mean if medieval people used swords and other long pointy things to symbolize what we use them to symbolize? In that case, what would that mean for Degarés search for his father (who has the broken piece, ll. 960-4)? Since Freud isnt going to write about the function of the unconscious in our reception of literature for about another four hundred years, how would you explain the authors decision to include this particular detail? (OK, a dumb question, but still important...what did Freud say about Sophocles' Oedipus the King when Freud argued that in C5 BCE Athens his theory already explained the plot's psychological significance?) If we accept the premise that poets can respond to complex agendas in their creation and that poems are complex, "polysemous" (many-meaning-ed) objects, the noble-political-social significance of the sword can exist in parallel with, or even in opposition to, the psycho-sexual significance of the same sword.
3) The maid who bears Ds cradle to the monastery with the gloves, gold, silver, and letter makes one mistake in the delivery, or the poet (seemingly in obedience to the folktale structural motif of "infant abandoned with tokens") makes it for her. What crucial piece of information does the maid fail to deliver? How would you explain this? Remember that child abandonment does not have to involve the abandoners' intentions of transmitting information about the infant's status, and in modern cases of abandonment, the parent(s) may even seek anonymity for the infant. Take seriously the "non-natural" aspect of the tokens and the messenger's speech.
4) Gloves? Wait a minute! Where did those gloves come from? Compare ll. 104-117 with 178-9). What does that imply about the relationship between faerie knight and the once-maiden, and how does that affect our reading of the problem in #1 above?
5) The young knight's given name could mean "almost lost," but it also (n.62 p. 52 in Rumble's paper edition) could mean "on the right road." How does this name exquisitely define the crucial character of the protagonists adventures?
6) Note that Degaré is a literate hero (ll. 251-4 and 267). What do you deduce about the poem and its audience from that detail?
7) Degarés introduction to knightly combat closely resembles Percivals in the Perlesvaus, a child raised far from court who knows nothing about chivalric practices but is a dab hand with a club saves or defeats an armored knight and thereby acquires arms. Where in that monastic training did Degaré acquire that power or fighting skill? What does that mean?
8) When Degaré finally battles for his bride, he wins (just like Oedipus after defeating the Sphinx) Mom! Further, like Oedipus and Jocasta, neither knows of the, uh, error. The glove test is almost forgotten until the victor, after the wedding (!), just manages to remember it. Why does the author postpone revelation of the glove test? Could this be an attempt to tap into his audiences' anxieties of some kind?
9) The chaste embrace of the foundling and his Mom leads to the embedded quest of the "poyntles swerd"" (l. 624). Now do you see whats going on here? The heros on a path of discovery, and at the end of every passage theres a member of his family, and I use the term advisedly. ("Gloves"?? Oh please...)
10) The abandoned castle fantasy clearly was very appealing to the medieval mind. They appear in the Prose Lancelot, Perlesvaus, Maries lai, "Yonec," as well as in countless folk tales. What does it do for the audience? Dont be surprised at the rude dwarf-door-keeper. The helpful/churlish dwarf was a standard plot device in romance, and when we get to Malorys "Gareth" narrative youll be treated to a dwarf abduction and rescue in which the hero cries out "give me my dwarf!" What does this tell you about the compositional logic and audience expectations for these tales? Instances of historical "dwarfism" seem to have little to do with the formulaic roles assigned these characters.
11) The silent beautiful lady of the castle constitutes yet another "sex threat" to our wandering boy. When she sits on his bed and harps, its clearly a challenge to his masculinity (ll. 770-4). Youll see this erotic challenge repeated again in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When she offers herself to him in return for his services against the giant which besieges her (overgrown manhood? compare Valentyne in "Syr Launfal"), he agrees in principle, but what happened to the glove test? Isn't he still supposed to use it to detect his proper bride, or has it really already played its covert role in the plot's structure of deficiencies and exchanges, and superabundances? Defeat of the giant almost pre-empts the "poyntles swerd" quest, but Degaré remembers again at the last minute and hurries off to find Dad. What is that silent, beautiful, dangerous, musical ladys function?
12) The encounter with Dad finishes the lais reprisal of the Oedipus story, when "The father for the sonys sake / [Tok] a sschaft that was gret and long, / And he another, al so strong" (ll. 942-3). The son returns the father to his mothers arms, and brings them (now wedded properly) to the castle where his own bride waits. What happened to the glove test? The combat between a powerful father and a rejected son also occurs in the Arthurian cycle when Arthur battles Mordred on Salisbury Plain. That plot probably was well known when this one was in its formative stages, and its outcome (death for both) also would have been known. If this were a retelling of the Arthur-Mordred combat, what might be the author's intentions?
For some analytical angles on several of the lais including Sir Degare, click here.
Some additional leads may be drawn from book reviews available online from The Medieval Review at : http://www.hti.umich.edu/t/tmr/.
"In the fabliaux, very few children result from the widespread fornication, and in the romances, fertility is often linked to the question of lineage and politics; the most attention paid to children in vernacular literature is to be found in the work of the one woman author, Marie de France." --Keith Busby, in a review of Baldwin, John W., The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1994
Also at the same site, see the review of this fascinating survey of ancient attitudes toward and literary uses of the forest:
95.01.02 Saunders, Corinne J., The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1993 xiii + 235 pages. Reviewed by Ruthmarie H. Mitsch, The Ohio State University.
If you have time and enjoyed "Degare" and "Emare," I urge you to read the longer "The Erle of Tolous", a narrative whose development appears more complete than any of the shorter lais and deals extensively with the problem of feudal social relationships formed by verbal promises which are subject to interpretation and deceptive use. Online Introduction to "The Erle of Tolous"; Online Text of "The Erle of Tolous"]