The Fair Unknown

The Knight of the Ill-Shapen Coat Chooses His Bride

The Fair Unknown

Characters, Symbols and MotifsName Variants: Lybeaus Desconus, Libeaus DesconusBackground Essay Author: Leah Haught
The "Fair Unknown" is a universally popular folk motif with strong Arthurian connections in which a young man of questionable lineage becomes an integral part of society. Initially appearing in court without an established identity, the Fair Unknown nevertheless boldly demands to be knighted. He tends to be markedly — albeit amusingly — uninhibited because of his isolated upbringing, and frequently knows little of his own paternity. Although he is quickly knighted, the Fair Unknown must prove his worth through an extended series of adventures before finally cementing his position within society through continued proof of his prowess and, ultimately, through marriage and the acquisition of property. Within the Arthurian tradition specifically, the Fair Unknown is usually discovered to be a relative of Gawain and, thus, related to Arthur himself. He must, therefore, prove himself worthy of being not only an Arthurian knight, but also Gawain and Arthur's kinsman.

Common themes/motifs within "Fair Unknown" romances: concealed identities, nicknames, Fier Baiser or "daring kiss" through which the hero transforms an enchanted heroine from a serpent back into a maiden, emphases on individual acts over established reputations, and tensions between those who act to uphold ideals versus those who simply talk about them.

Popular romance themes/motifs frequently employed by "Fair Unknown" romances: sparrowhawk contests, seduction by a fairy, prevention of rape, battles at bridges or fords, fighting with giants, demanding boons (including knighthood), youth and beauty of heroes, loathly ladies, fighting brothers, messenger maidens and accompanying dwarfs, total victory over opponents, tournaments to re-instate heroes in Arthurian...

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