The Tale of Ralph the Collier: Introduction

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The Tale of Ralph the Collier: Introduction

The story of Rauf Coilyear has come down to us in an edition printed in 1572. No manuscript survives and only one copy (owned by the National Library of Scotland) of this earliest printed text exists. The poem is a late product of the movement known as the Alliterative Revival, a revival -- or more likely the continuation of a tradition -- of the use of alliterative verse that extends back to the Old English period. The poems written in alliterative verse employ alliteration as a controlling metrical device. As in Old English, lines are divided into two half-lines linked by similar initial sounds. Middle English alliterative verse does not follow strictly the rules of the Anglo-Saxon, but the basic metrical principles survive. While examples of Middle English alliterative verse can be found from the twelfth century on (Layamon's Brut being the prime example), from the middle of the fourteenth century well into the fifteenth, there is once again a widespread use of alliterative verse. Some of the greatest Middle English poems, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the alliterative Morte Arthure are products of this revival.

The romance was written in the latter part of the fifteenth century in a Scottish dialect and exhibits many of the characteristic traits of that dialect. In the present tense, both the third person singular and the third person plural are indicated by the ending -is (as in `buik sayis'; `he rydis'; `menstrallis playis'; and `men that counteris'). The present participle is indicated by -and rather than -ing (as in `lykand' and `walkand'). The pronoun `she' appears as `scho'; and the third person plural pronoun has forms in th (as in `them,' where southern and central dialects would use `hem'). A number of other spellings and forms found in the poem are also typical of the Scottish dialect. The Old English long a, which becomes o in central and southern dialects, remains as a (as in `hame' for `home'; `ga' for `go'; and `sa' for `so'). The wh of other dialects appears as quh (as in `quhair' for `where'; `quhat' for `what'; and `quhen' for `when'). The sh of more southern dialects appears as s in `sall' (for `shall'), `suld' (for `should') and `salbe' for (`shall be'). Other typically Scottish forms include `schir' for `sir' and `till' (occasionally) for `to.'

Rauf Coilyear is written in the thirteen-line stanza used in such other alliterative poems as Golagros and Gawaine and the Awntyrs of Arthure. The stanza generally contains nine long (four-stress) lines, each of which is governed by alliteration, and four shorter lines which may or may not alliterate. The stanza also has a rhyme scheme of ababababcdddc. As in all alliterative verse, there is considerable use of formulaic phrases, phrases such as `proudest in pane' or `with birny and brand,' which are used repeatedly within alliterative poetry to satisfy the metrical/alliterative needs of a portion of a line. Despite the traditional nature of these recurring phrases, the poet has -- as Elizabeth Walsh observes in her article on the poem -- used alliterative formulas in such a way that they `can be said to have some significance in the poem as elements of characterisation and/or as relating to thematic content' (p. 17).

The poet demonstrates his craftsmanship not only as an alliterative poet but also as the author of a Charlemagne romance. For here too, he has made use of the traditional with great skill. Rauf Coilyear is one of those Middle English Charlemagne poems known as `detached romances.' That is, it belongs neither to the Ferumbras nor the Otuel group. There is, in fact, no known source for this poem, though there are analogues to each of the two parts. As a number of critics have pointed out, the first part of the poem is a version of the king-in-disguise motif common in folklore. In England the motif goes back to a story told about Alfred the Great. (In her edition, Walsh refers to many other analogous stories.) The second part of the poem parodies, as Barron has observed, `the Christian-Muslim combats of Otuel and Firumbras' (p. 181). These two parts are woven together only loosely by a developing line of action. More important is the thematic unity that links the two parts.

The first part of the poem treats the rough but sincere hospitality Charlemagne receives from the simple collier. The treatment is much rougher than that to which the King is accustomed. When Rauf and Charlemagne arrive at Rauf's house and the guest stands aside to let his host enter first, Rauf accuses him of being discourteous and shoves him into the house, telling the King that he ought to `make me lord of my awin' (l. 128). Later, after another breach of courtesy, Rauf strikes the King and instructs him to do as Rauf tells him because it is his (Rauf's) house. The King's reactions show that he realizes he should have recognized the right of a man to rule in his own home.

Charlemagne's failure, initially, to recognize Rauf's preeminence is matched by a lack of recognition on Rauf's part. He does not recognize (in the two senses of the word) the King. He does not know what his monarch looks like and so unquestioningly accepts a pseudonym as his real name, even when Rauf's wife has difficulty in believing that their grand guest is `Wymond of the Wardrop'; and Rauf fails to observe the King's laws, at least as regards hunting in the royal forests. Rauf's lack of knowledge goes even further than not knowing what the King looks like. When invited to bring a load of coal for sale at court, Rauf admits that he has `na knawledge quhair the court lyis' (l. 246).

By having Rauf come to the court, the King begins his knightly education by having him recognize -- in both senses -- his ruler. But Charlemagne also wants Rauf to prove himself, to win his shoes. As Rauf rides out in quest of adventure, his awareness is again deficient. He cannot distinguish between the Saracen Sir Magog and Sir Roland whom he has previously challenged -- even though Magog rides a camel instead of a horse. Upon learning that Magog is a Saracen, Rauf is overjoyed to be fighting for the faith.

When Roland rides up and interrupts the battle, he immediately recognizes Magog as an infidel and even comments on this recognition: `Thow art ane Sarasine, I se be my sicht' (l. 871). Instead of wishing to fight Magog, Roland wants to convert him. Just as Rauf was taught to recognize a king in two senses, so he is taught to recognize a Saracen on two levels: first physically and then as a religiously errant soul to be saved. Roland shows Rauf that victory over Magog's false faith is more important than victory over his person.

But even more transpires in this scene. When Roland interrupts the combatants and encourages Magog to convert, the Saracen refuses and wants to continue fighting. Roland points out the foolishness of this course of action and after being threatened again tells Magog that it is folly to enjoy worldly wealth now and to spend eternity in hell. But he seems to contradict himself when he offers the Saracen profit and pardon if he will convert. At least he is not wholly aware of the meaning of the words he has just spoken (in ll. 918B20). Thus Roland, like Rauf, needs to be made more aware of the true values his knighthood and religion stand for. Both can learn a lesson from the reaction of the Saracen who doesn't care about riches but says that if `thy God be sa gude as I heir the say, / I will forsaik Mahoun' (ll. 937B38). Magog thus becomes another agent in the education of a knight; and the tested Roland can learn from him as well as the untried Rauf can. Magog's reply makes (or should make) both of them aware of the distinction between a faith based on personal gain and a faith based on love of God.

The author uses the debate surrounding the conversion as both a satiric comment on Roland's failure in religious awareness and as the final phase of instruction for Rauf. The author has skillfully manipulated the Christian-Saracen conflict so that the verbal contest becomes more important than the martial.

The two parts of the poem are thus linked by the theme of recognition or awareness -- on the political, religious and personal levels that must combine to make one a good knight or, we might say, a good person. (The blurring of the distinction is significant in this late poem where the heroic conventions of earlier romance and certainly of the chansons de gestes are taken with a grain of salt.) The theme is evident from the very beginning of the poem: the storm in which Charlemagne loses his way is a perfect symbol for the lack of awareness that must be dispelled in the course of the romance.

Though the author makes a serious point, he does so through a comic tale. It would be a mistake to read Rauf Coilyear without recognizing the humor involved in the harboring of a king by a simple collier. Many incidents contribute to this humor -- from the slapstick buffeting of Charlemagne, the emperor instructed by a collier, to Roland's mild annoyance at being sent out to watch the lonely road on a day that is supposed to be a holiday. The elements of parody contribute to the humor. The traditional fight with the Saracen turns into a religious debate. The King's being separated from his followers has echoes of the separation of Charlemagne from his troops and his abandonment due to the treachery of Ganelon in The Sowdone of Babylone. This lighthearted use of the Charlemagne material makes Rauf Coilyear perhaps the best and certainly the most entertaining of the Middle English Charlemagne romances.

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No manuscript survives. All modern editions are based on the 1572 edition of Robert Lekpreuik, reproduced in a facsimile edition: The Taill of Rauf Coilyear: Printed by Robert Lekpreuik at St. Andrews in 1572: A Facsimile of the Only Known Copy. Keppie Facsimiles No. 1. Ed. W. Beattie. Edinburgh: National Library of Scotland, 1966.


The Tale of Rauf Coilyear. In Early Popular Poetry of Scotland and the Northern Border. Edited by David Laing LL.D. in 1822 and 1826. Re-Arranged and Revised with Additions and a Glossary by W. Carew Hazlitt. 2 vols. London: Reeves and Turner, 1895.

The Tail of Rauf Coilyear: Mit literarhistorischer, grammatischer und metrischer Einleitung. Ed. M. Tonndorf. Berlin: C. Vogt's Verlag, 1894.

Rauf Coilyear. In Scottish Alliterative Poems in Riming Stanzas. Ed. F. J. Amours. Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1897.

The Taill of Rauf Coilyear: A Scottish Metrical Romance of the Fifteenth Century. Ed. William Hand Browne. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1903.

The Taill of Rauf Coilyear. In Longer Scottish Poems. 2 vols. Ed. Priscilla Bawcutt and Felicity Riddy. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

Rauf Coilyear. In Medieval English Romances. Ed. Diane Speed. Sydney: Dept. of English, University of Sydney, 1989.

The Tale of Ralph the Collier: An Alliterative Romance. Ed. Elizabeth Walsh. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.


Barron, W. R. J. English Medieval Romance. London: Longman, 1987. Pp. 181B82.

Oakden, J. P. Alliterative Poetry in Middle English. 2 vols. in 1. 1930, 1935; rpt. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1968.

Smyser, H. M. `The Taill of Rauf Coilyear and Its Sources.' Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, 14 (1932), 135B150.

Walsh, Elizabeth. `The Tale of Rauf Coilyear: Oral Motif in Literary Guise.' Scottish Literary Journal, 6.2 (1979), 5B19.