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The King of Tars

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This romance survives in three manuscripts, the oldest being MS Auchinleck (c. 1330). The version found in MS Vernon (late fourteenth century) differs in various respects from the earlier version; the overarching narrative, however, is largely the same. A third version is found in MS Simeon (c. 1390 – 1400), though this one is likely a copy of MS Vernon version.

For a full-text transcription of the Auchinlek version, see the following online edition courtesy of the National Library of Scotland: The King of Tars


The Sultan of Damascus hears about the beautiful daughter of the King of Tars (i.e. Tartary) and decides that he must have her. The king, her father, says that he would rather die in battle and lose all of his lands than have his daughter marry a pagan; though enraged, he nevertheless asks his daughter if she would agree to the union, and she predictably refuses. When the messengers tell the Sultan that King will not give over his daughter, he flies into a rage and vows to win her through war. He raises an army, and the King of Tars raises one in turn; the Sultan's men win the battle rather easily, slaughtering roughly thirty thousand Christians. After witnessing the wholesale slaughter of his people, the king flees back to his city, and the daughter relents, saying that she would rather be the Sultan's wife than see any more Christians killed. Delighted, the Sultan sends his messengers with copious amounts of jewels and finery to Tartary to claim the princess, whom they escort back to the Sultan.

Upon arrival, the princess is sent to a richly decorated bedchamber; the Sultan, however, refuses to sleep with her until she converts to his faith. When the princess falls asleep she has a vivid and violent dream: one hundred vicious, black hounds snarl at her, and as she tries to escape she encounters three burning devils who threaten her in turn. She thinks of Christ, and they are unable to harm her. Immediately after this encounter, a single, black hound arrives and attacks her, but she saves herself by meditating upon Christ’s passion. The black hound then transforms into a white knight and tells her not to be afraid of the pagan gods because God will come to her aid. She wakes suddenly, and the Sultan takes her into his temple and orders her to convert; if she does not, he will kill her parents. She consents, but it is clear that her cooperation is merely superficial; she remains a true Christian at heart.

The princess becomes pregnant shortly afterwards, and while the Sultan is overjoyed, she is overcome with shame because she is carrying a pagan's child. The child is born a formless mass, with no eyes or nose; it lies as if it were dead, though somehow both parents know that it lives. They each blame each other’s religious beliefs for the child's condition. The princess tells the Sultan to take the child to his temple; if his gods can heal the child then she will believe in them, but if they can not help their son, she will deny their power. The sultan takes his son to the temple, but the child remains unchanged; the Sultan flies into a rage and breaks the temple idols. Once he returns the child to its mother, she asks him to let her pray to her God for help. The Sultan consents, saying that if her God can heal their son, then he will forsake his gods and believe in hers. She tells him to find a priest among his Christian prisoners; once found, the priest baptizes the lump-child, who is promptly transformed into a perfectly formed and fair baby. The Sultan immediately forsakes his gods and calls on the Christian trinity. His wife tells him though that until he is baptized neither the child nor she can be considered “his.” The Sultan vows to convert, with help and instruction from the priest; he requests, however, that this conversion be a private matter.

When baptized, the Sultan himself undergoes a transformation as well—his skin tone changes from black to white. He sends for his father-in-law, the King of Tars, by way of the priest, with the message to bring an army and to convert all in the Sultan's domain (those who refuse conversion will be hung). The King, upon hearing of the Sultan's conversion and his subsequent desire to christen his country, is overjoyed and makes his way to Damascus. News spreads of the plans to convert the country and five kings rise up against the Sultan and the King. A long battle ensues, but—unlike the battle at the romance's beginning—the Christians triumph, and all who refuse to convert are slaughtered. Thirty thousand Christian prisoners are freed from the Sultan's prisons, and thirty thousand pagans are now placed within them, and they are soon beheaded outside the city walls.


Though the matter of crusading is perhaps more implicit in this romance than in others, there remain several significant themes that play upon matters of religious warfare and conversion.

The first such theme is the matter of necessitated conversion. From beginning to end of The King of Tars, there exists a consistent depiction of Easterners as bestial threats to both the physical landscape and spiritual tenets of Christianity. The framing of the main narrative with two battles between Christians and Saracens highlights this distinction. In the first battle, the Saracens easily lay waste to the King of Tars' lands and people, stopping only when his daughter agrees to marry their sultan. The story concludes with the converted and transformed Sultan warring against the unconverted in his kingdom with the help of his father-in-law, the King of Tars. Those who do not convert by romance's end are hanged. The beginning and conclusion of the romance suggest that coexistence between Christians and pagans is far from desirable, and that the only way to mitigate threat posed by a non-Christian is to exterminate them—either by warfare or, as also seen in this romance, through baptism.

Baptism (a second relative theme) is used as effectively as the sword in The King of Tars as a means of eliminating the Saracen. It is also a device by which to comment on the fourteenth century concerns over miscegenation. The union between the unconverted Saracen and the incognito Christian in this romance produces a horrific blob-child—a startling exaggeration of the fears of mixed marriages that prompted the passing of anti-miscegenation laws (Cohen 120). Mixing race in marriage was, as Cohen observes, frequently equated during this time with sodomy and bestiality, the latter of which is clearly seen in the princess' dream where she is nearly raped by a pack of wild dogs (who represent the heathens). This is not a device unique to King of Tars. For instance, Feirfitz in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal is a product of a Saracen/Christian union and is born speckled. He is a fully functional human being though, capable of chivalric prowess equal to that of any white Christian knight (though it should be noted that his black specks are rejected even by his black mother, as she kisses only his white spots). This fantastical depiction mixed marriages is taken to an even greater extreme in this English romance, with the modes for coexistence between Christian and Saracen being correlatively near-to-nonexistent. Whereas Feirfitz is a fully functional human, the product of miscegenation between the Sultan and Christian princess in the King of Tars is a formless mass—one that only becomes human through baptism.

The final gesture towards crusading occurs at the end of the romance, when the King of Tars and the Sultan of Damascus wage a war of religion against all those who refuse to convert to Christianity. The implication, by romance’s end, is that the Levant might once again become part of Christendom.


MS. Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck), ff. 7a-13, imp.; National (formerly Advocates') Library, Edinburgh.

MS. Bodl. 3938 (Vernon), ff. 304b-307a; Bodleian Library, Oxford.

MS. B. M. Additional 22283 (Simeon), ff. 126a-128b; The British Museum, London.


Geist, Robert J. "The King of Tars: A Medieval Romance." Diss. University of Illinois, 1940.

Perryman, Judith, ed. The King of Tars: Edited from the Auchinleck MS, Advocates 19.2.1. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1980.

Shores, Doris. "The King of Tars: A New Edition." Diss. New York University, 1969.

Related Scholarship:

Calkin, Siobhain Bly. "Marking Religion on the Body: Saracens, Categorization, and The King of Tars.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 104.2 (2005 Apr). Pp. 219-38.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "On Saracen Enjoyment: Some Fantasies of Race in Late Medieval France and England ." Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 31.1  (2001). Pp. 113 - 146.

Cordery, Leona F. "A Medieval Interpretation of Risk: How Christian Women Deal with Adversity as Portrayed in The Man of Law's Tale, Emaré and the King of Tars." In The Self at Risk in English Literatures and Other Landscapes. Ed. Gudrun M. Grabher. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, 177-85.

Gilbert, Jane. "Putting the Pulp into Fiction: The Lump-Child and Its Parents in The King of Tars." In Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Manchester: Manchester UP, 102-23.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, 226-37.

Hornstein, Lillian Herlands. "The Historical Background of The King of Tars." Speculum, 16.4 (1941). Pp. 404-14.

-----. "New Analogues to the King of Tars." MLR, 36 (1941), 433-42.

-----. "A Study of Historical and Folk-lore Sources of the King of Tars." Diss. New York University, 1940.