Introduction to Richard Johnson's Tom A Lincoln

1 For an excellent short biography, see Richard Proudfoot's entry on Johnson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

2 Naomi Liebler mentions the influence on Coriolanus in her essay "Elizabethan Pulp Fiction: the example of Richard Johnson" (Critical Survey, v. 12.2 [2000]), page 74, and Michael McKeon discusses the influence on Bunyan in his Origins of the English Novel (Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), page 302.

3 John Simons, Guy of Warwick and other Chapbook Romances (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1998), page viii.

4 For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Margaret Spufford's Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.), particularly chapters I-V.

5 Attribution is uncertain, though it may have been adapted by Thomas Heywood. For a more detailed discussion, see G. R. Proudfoot's introduction to Tom a Lincoln (Oxford: published for the Malone Society by Oxford UP, 1992), an edition of the play.

6 Christopher Dean, Arthur of England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), pages 111-13.

7 Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004), pages 389-91.

8 R. S. M. Hirsch, R.I., The Most Pleasant History of Tom a Lincolne (Columbia, S.C.: Published for the Newberry Library by the University of South Carolina Press, 1978), xii-xiii. Hirsch's edition is based primarily on the sixth printing of 1631, which differs in some respects from the source text for this edition.

9 See the Richard Johnson entries in both Pollard and Redgrave (STC: 1475-1640) and Wing (STC: 1641-1700).

10 For a detailed description of the relationships between the sixth, seventh, and ninth printings, see Hirsch's introduction.

11 A relatively brief discussion of seventeenth-century Arthuriana can be found in Derek Pearsall's Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.117. A much longer and more detailed description of the same period can be found in Roberta Brinkley's Arthurian Legend in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Octagon Books, 1970), chapters I and II.

12 Spufford, page 267.

13 Spufford, page 237.

14 Cooper, page 111.

15 Liebler, page 73.

Introduction to Richard Johnson's Tom A Lincoln

by: Ryan Harper (Author)
from: The Camelot Project  2008

Richard Johnson's Tom a Lincoln, an early seventeenth-century prose romance detailing the exploits of King Arthur's bastard son, is only connected to more familiar Arthurian materials and traditions by the most tenuous of threads. Though the story names Arthur as king and includes knights named Lancelot du Lake, Sir Tristram, and Sir Triamore, none of these figures are recognizably drawn from any established Arthurian tradition, and the bulk of the adventures described focus on decidedly non-Arthurian figures and settings. Further, the romance saw its greatest circulation during a century in which Arthurian traditions in general, and the romantic materials in particular, were falling from literary favor. But while Tom a Lincoln does not tie into the main lines of Arthurian tradition in terms of its content or its chronology, neither is it simply an Arthurian oddity of no serious import. Rather, it gives us some important insights into both the ways in which and the degrees to which a romantic conception of Arthur persisted in the English popular imagination throughout the seventeenth century.
     This idea of the popular imagination is particularly suitable here, as Tom a Lincoln was composed by a man who knew how to please a broad audience. Richard Johnson, despite being relatively unknown outside specialist circles today, was a well-known Elizabethan writer, the equivalent of a best-selling author. He was both prolific (producing more than a dozen known works between 1592 and 1622), and versatile (his output ranged from topical pamphlets to ballad collections to longer prose narratives). His most famous work, The Seven Champions of Christendom, is a prose narrative which recounts the fantastical adventures of the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Italy and Spain, featuring most prominently (and patriotically) the dragon-slaying exploits of St. George of England.1 The Seven Champions was continually reprinted, in some form or other, into the twentieth century, and its influence has been detected in works as varied as Shakespeare's Coriolanus and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.2 Other enduring works by Johnson include The History of Tom Thumbe, the earliest known prose version of the popular story of King Arthur's littlest knight, and, of course, Tom a Lincoln, the story which most concerns us here.
     That Johnson's work remains relatively unknown despite this popularity and influence is not surprising; Johnson was, after all, a writer of broadsides and chapbooks, and as John Simon points out, the world of chapbook readership is "far removed from that of the relatively small circle of those readers who at any one time compose the 'literary public.'"3 Throughout the seventeenth century (when Tom a Lincoln saw its greatest circulation), and particularly within the latter part of that century (when the source text for this edition was printed) many thousands of chapbooks were printed and distributed throughout England as publishers took advantage of a rise in elementary education which created an expanding pool of lower to middle class readers.4 Chapbook publishers produced materials to satisfy tastes from the profound to the profane--there were religious and devotional books, almanacs, romances, prophecies, histories (often dubious), stories of courtship, instructional treatises, ballads, and broadsides. The market for these cheaply-printed (though not necessarily cheap) texts was quite diverse as well, from apprentices and peasants to merchants and yeomen, as well as women and schoolboys of all classes.
     Johnson's Tom a Lincoln was not quite as enduring and influential as his Seven Champions, but it nonetheless had a respectable run of its own--it saw at least a dozen printings before 1700 and was adapted for the stage early in the seventeenth century.5 The story is an episodic chivalric romance, with plenty of the various fantastical and far-fetched elements one would expect of such a tale. Part one, registered in 1599, covers a lot of narrative territory in a relatively short space. It begins with the adulterous courtship between King Arthur and Angelica, the daughter of the mayor of London--an affair which ultimately results in the birth of the hero. Given the circumstances, the infant is secretly deposited (with a fair bit of treasure, of course) at the gate of Antonio, an old shepherd. The old shepherd and his wife christen the infant Tom of Lincoln and raise him as their own, but Tom's inner nobility leads him to eschew a shepherd's life and follow a more martial calling; he gathers a band of young men, takes the name "Red Rose Knight," travels to Barnsdale Heath (of Robin Hood fame), and becomes a robber. Soon after, Antonio visits Tom, denounces him, reveals that he is a foundling, and then dies from disappointment. Meanwhile King Arthur hears of Tom's exploits, recognizes that this robber is his bastard son, and sends three of his knights (Sir Lancelot du Lake, Sir Tristram, and Sir Triamore) to fetch him to the court. Tom returns to court, where he is immediately made a Knight of the Round Table (though his parentage remains secret) and subsequently wins the prize in a tournament held in his honor. Tom then leads the English army to victory in a war against Portugal before setting off on a quest in search of his parents. This quest takes him first to an island of women (called the Fairy Land) where he and his knights briefly restore the procreative balance; then on a protracted sea voyage, during which a long-winded Lancelot fills time with the telling of another romance; and finally carries him to the land of Prester John, where he defeats a dragon before running off with Prester John's daughter Anglitora. Meanwhile, Celia, the queen of the Fairy Land and mother of Tom's newly-born son, awaits his promised return. When, on the return trip, Tom's ship comes into view but (due to a trick of the current) fails to land, she pins a note to herself, leaps into the ocean, and drowns. Tom and his crew retrieve her corpse (and the attached note), bring it back to England, and bury her with due royal honors as part one draws to a close.
     Part two, registered in 1607, is devoted primarily to undoing the action of part one. It begins with Arthur's deathbed confession of his adulterous relationship with Angelica, which then leads to the revelation that Tom is Arthur's bastard son. The news turns a jealous and vengeful queen against both Angelica and Tom, and causes Anglitora such distress that she resolves to abandon her husband and return to her father. Thus, while Tom conducts his mother to a Lincoln cloister, the widowed queen plots her revenge, and Anglitora, accompanied by her son (the Black Knight) and an exotic servant/slave, puts out to sea. Angelica is soon put to death on the queen's orders, after which the queen goes mad with guilt and hangs herself. Tom, finding himself impoverished and alone, dons sheep-skin clothing and sets out in search of his wife. Meanwhile, Anglitora and her companions arrive in a fertile but wild land, which is uninhabited but for a single castle occupied by a knight and his dwarf servant. They are welcomed into the castle, and soon the Black Knight loses himself in the wilderness for seven years. Anglitora becomes the Knight of the Castle's lover, and the servant, disgusted by Anglitora's behavior, sets out to find Tom. These two travelers, after a series of adventures (including a seven-year sea voyage during which Tom is forced to eat his shipmates), find each other and make their way to the castle where Anglitora and her lover reside. Anglitora recognizes them and, with the help of the knight and his dwarf, murders Tom and buries him in a dung heap, and sets the servant in the ground, up to his waist.
     The story then turns to the Black Knight, now a wild man, who is ordered by his father's ghost to kill his mother. The Black Knight returns to the castle, frees the servant (who has by this point eaten the flesh from his own arms), and kills both his mother and the Knight of the Castle. He is briefly driven mad by the matricide, but is brought back to sanity by the servant, who subsequently dies. The Black knight then kills the dwarf in recompense for the servant's death, and buries both in the same grave. Meanwhile, in a whirlwind final chapter, the Fairy Knight (Tom a Lincoln's son by Celia) has a series of adventures of his own before discovering his brother, the Black Knight, asleep on their father's grave, and after a brief recognition scene the two knights join up, have a series of adventures together, win great fame, return to England, build a magnificent church in Lincoln as a monument to their parents, and are ultimately buried in the same tomb.
     Thus far the work has received relatively little critical attention. It is mostly mentioned in passing in book-length studies of larger topics, and often not in particularly glowing terms. There are, however, a couple of notable short critical discussions of the work. One appears in Christopher Dean's Arthur of England, where Dean offers a short history of Tom a Lincoln criticism and then describes the work as exaggerated in both content and style, a low-born hero romance which is particularly harsh in its presentation of the nobility.6 Another notable short discussion appears in Helen Cooper's The English Romance in Time, where Cooper focuses on Johnson's harsh portrayal of the female characters and ultimately describes the work as a misogynistic text which attempts to "destroy the ideology of romance."7 The only extended critical treatment devoted entirely to Johnson's Tom a Lincoln is Richard S. M. Hirsch's introduction to his own edition of the text, and while he also points out the moral deficiencies of Johnson's Arthur, Hirsch suggests that the work is ultimately moralistic--according to Hirsch, the heroic but perhaps immoral action of Part I is justly punished in Part II, leaving the reader with "a new sense of what is truly admirable."8
     The first editions of the text are unfortunately no longer extant; the earliest surviving edition is the sixth printing of 1631, and the base text for this edition is the twelfth printing of 1682. Other extant printings include the seventh (1635), the ninth (1655), and an unnumbered edition dated 1668.9 While little can be said regarding the first five printings, internal evidence suggests that between 1631 and 1682, most printings of Tom a Lincoln were based upon their immediate predecessors.10 As with many such publications, there is no indication that any of the publishers who produced editions of Tom a Lincoln were attempting to recreate some sort of original, authorized text; rather, they seem to have been reincarnating an established moneymaker, starting with whatever source materials were at hand. The results were a bit idiosyncratic, as errors and editorial changes accumulated through time, but it seems that such idiosyncrasies did little to deter readers, since each incarnation seems to have performed well enough, commercially, to justify subsequent printings.
     While the sheer number of such reincarnations throughout the seventeenth century demonstrates that Tom a Lincoln was certainly a popular and profitable text, it is important to note that, during this same period, the larger Arthurian tradition was in a much more precarious position. King Arthur is, after all, a monarchical figure, and during the turbulent seventeenth century (which saw English monarchs attacked, beheaded, restored and subsequently overthrown) treatments of Arthur tended to be more political and historical than romantic. For example, when James I came to the throne early in the century, his supporters hailed him as Arthur's heir, on Geoffrey of Monmouth's authority, by virtue of his British (i.e. Welsh) ancestry. When James began insisting on absolute royal power, however, his opponents responded by attacking the "British" myth of national origin (and, incidentally, Arthur's historicity), insisting that England was instead a Saxon nation and thus founded upon ancient Saxon laws.11 As the nation moved first into civil war and then the commonwealth period, the debate regarding Arthur's historicity moved into the cultural background, and the romantic Arthur all but disappeared from the literary scene. The 1634 publication of Malory was the last for almost two centuries, and by mid-century most "Arthurian" texts focused on Merlin as prophet rather than Arthur as king. Interest in Arthur revived a bit following the Restoration--Dryden and Purcell's King Arthur appeared in 1691, and Sir Richard Blackmore published two Arthurian epics in the same decade--but overall it is fair to say that the seventeenth century was not particularly kind to the romantic King Arthur.
     Given this context, it is also worth noting that popularity of Tom a Lincoln was related as much to the form of the narrative as it was to the specific content. Chivalric romances such as Tom a Lincoln--the category includes such titles as Amadis of Gaul, Guy of Warwick, and Palmerin of England, among others--were immensely popular and offered readers fantastical figures and adventures set against an idealized chivalric past. In perhaps more familiar literary terms, Tom a Lincoln and its ilk are precisely the sort of works Cervantes was both lampooning and honoring in Don Quixote. In fact, the enduring appeal of Cervantes' early seventeenth century narrative may very well be linked to the enduring popularity of the chivalric romances it parodies; for example, Palmerin of England, a chivalric romance referenced by Cervantes in 1604, appears right next to Tom a Lincoln in the 1689 trade list of chapbook publisher William Thackeray.12 These sorts of romances, indeed some of these specific titles, were continually reintroduced to new audiences, as was Cervantes' parody of them; as Margaret Spufford points out, "the little duodecimo version of Don Quixote, printed for Conyers in 1686, must have been as refreshingly funny to the newly-literate in the 1680s as when Cervantes first wrote it."13 Though the Arthurian names may have helped establish the necessary sense of a romantic past, it seems to have been the popularity of chivalric romance, more than the Arthurian connection, that carried Tom a Lincoln through the seventeenth century.
     If this tale is not particularly Arthurian, however, neither is it particularly anything else; Tom a Lincoln is a notably composite text which incorporates images and materials drawn from a broad range of sources. In these pages we see, among many other things, numerous elaborate references to Ovid's Metamorphoses and Heroides, a fairy land whose inhabitants are notably reminiscent of the Lemnian women in the Thebaid, an adventure which takes place in the land of Prester John, a bit of outlawry upon Robin Hood's own Barnsdale Heath, an exotic servant (so exotic, in fact, that his origins seem to shift), a far-off wild place which seems suspiciously reminiscent of the contemporary New World, and a notably Hamlet-like ghost, all strung together on an easily-recognizable framework of fantastical chivalric episodes. While none of these elements are directly stolen or plagiarized, one quickly gets the distinct impression that Tom a Lincoln is made up mostly of scraps of familiar stories and contemporary images, all stitched into a single episodic romance. It is, in fact, so comprehensively composite that Cooper refers to it as "that compendium of every available romance motif."14 From this perspective the Arthurian names, like so many of the other elements and episodes in Tom a Lincoln, seem to be little more than borrowed bits of cultural detritus.
     But Johnson's overtly synthetic approach to narrative construction is no reason to condemn either Tom a Lincoln in general, or its Arthurian references in particular. As Naomi Liebler points out, "it is important to remember that the genres in which [Johnson] worked were those that specifically relied on the familiar, even the repetitive, for their enormous appeal and popularity."15 The significance here is that, in a composite work which plays on familiarity, Arthur is established as the English king of legend. The immediate connections for a popular author like Johnson are apparent: he could pick any number of names, but if familiarity sells, then it makes sense for an author to use the most familiar and appropriately evocative name in any given context. In this case it seems that Johnson considered Arthur, rather than, say, Lear, to be the best bet for a legendary English king, and thus there are a number of recognizable Arthurian names in the work. We can see the same logic at play in Johnson's use of Prester John for the far-off king of legend and Barnsdale Heath as the site of outlawry. In this context it matters little that Johnson doesn't definitively connect his Arthurian borrowings to any established Arthurian tradition; he is evoking, not recreating, and in any case the broadest possible audience would likely include a significant number of people who would neither know nor care about anything beyond the sketchiest details of the various traditional Arthurian materials.
     The most significant aspect of Johnson's borrowed Arthuriana, however, is not the way it may have worked within a particular cultural moment, but rather its endurance in the seventeenth century popular consciousness; though this study essentially begins with Johnson and his choices, it doesn't end with them. Johnson was most likely writing to his immediate sense of an immediate audience, and he could hardly have predicted (with any certainty, that is) that Tom a Lincoln would remain in regular circulation for the better part of a century. Though Johnson's use of familiar Arthuriana may have been rooted in a particular cultural moment, the work itself (if one may judge by its many reincarnations) went on to become part of the larger cultural framework of Arthuriana. Basically, as a work like Tom a Lincoln is distributed, reprinted, and presumably read, its Arthurian elements, which might otherwise have faded from the popular consciousness, are continually reintroduced and reinforced. Thus the printing history of Tom a Lincoln demonstrates that Arthur's relatively apolitical position as the English king of a romantic long ago was maintained throughout the seventeenth century, despite the volatile political events and historical debates which so notably affected more elite Arthurian representations. In this sense, Tom a Lincoln represents a parallel Arthurian discourse in which the complexity and depth of the medieval Arthur is lost but the simplified image of Arthur remains part of a larger stock of popular and enduring romantic icons.

Editorial Policies and Processes:

      The Camelot Project publication of The Most Pleasant History of Tom a Lincoln is intended to serve as a reading edition, not a diplomatic scholarly edition, and some changes have been made uniformly according to modern conventional usage. Capitals have been regularized (proper names, formal titles and vocatives are capitalized) as has the typeface. Quotation marks have been added to denote dialogue (in the source text, dialogue is denoted by a change in typeface). Apostrophes have also been added to note possession. Punctuation has been added, removed and modified when necessary to bring the text more in line with modern usage. Syntax and spelling, however, have not been changed.

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