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Sir Owain: Introduction


1 See Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick's Purgatory, pp. 7-43; Jean-Michael Picard, trans., Saint Patrick's Purgatory: A Twelfth Century Tale of a Journey to the Other World, intro. Yolande de Pontfarcy (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1985), pp. 18-21; Shane Leslie, St. Patrick's Purgatory: A Record from History and Literature, pp. ix-xv.

2 The Book of Armagh, compiled by a ninth-century scribe, contains the first surviving versions of two seventh-century Irish "Lives" of St. Patrick, one by Muirchu Macca Machteni and one by Tirechan, documents in Latin and English concerning the life of St. Patrick and the prerogatives of the See of Armagh, a Vulgate New Testament with various commentaries, and the "Life of St. Martin of Tours" (c. 316-67) by Sulpicius Severus (c. 360-420/425).
Sir Owain is the story of the successful penitential visit of the sinful knight Sir Owain to Purgatory and the Earthly Paradise by way of "St. Patrick's Purgatory" on Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. Although much is obscure about the origins of St. Patrick's Purgatory as a place of entry into the next world, and much is debatable about the emergence of St. Patrick's Purgatory as a place of pilgrimage, this poem is a clear and vigorous version of Owain's journey, presented more in the form and manner of medieval metrical romance than of a didactic treatise or tract. The moral lessons remain clear, but that is not foreign to the medieval romances, which characteristically represent and celebrate an idea or ideal.

Ancient Irish legends associated the existence of an entry into the next world with the mission of St. Patrick (c. 389-c. 461) to convert the pagan Irish.1 In these legends, the Irish would not accept St. Patrick's teachings unless a man was able to enter the next world and return again. Providentially, God appeared to St. Patrick on an island in Lough Derg, by means of a vision or a dream, led him into a wilderness, or barren place, pointed out a pit that was the entry to Purgatory, and assured St. Patrick that anyone who stayed a day and a night in the next world would be cleansed of his sins. Apparently, as a gesture of authenticating good faith, God left behind a book and a staff. The book was often taken to be the Book of Armagh, which was thought to be a relic of St. Patrick. Legend here conflicts with reality, since the clearly ninth-century Book of Armagh, preserved in Trinity College Dublin, is too late for the fifth-century saint, and does not contain the information about "Godes priveté," divine knowledge not available to or appropriate for human beings, which the legend mentions.2 The staff may simply be a symbol of St. Patrick's episcopal authority, but Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1147-1216/20) associated it with St. Patrick's driving the snakes out of Ireland, and many legends assign the staff mysterious magical powers.

A second version of the origins of the entry says that St. Patrick drew a circle on the ground and cast a staff, already in his possession, into the middle of it, and a deep chasm opened up. A third version, apparently a more modest rationalization of the second, held that St. Patrick came upon a cave and experienced a vision of the next world within it. The first version, with its wealth of imaginative detail, was the most prominent down through the Middle Ages. In all versions, St. Patrick orders a church to be built over the site and gives it to the care of Augustinian Canons Regular (perhaps an anachronism, depending upon which dating of the origins of the Canons Regular one accepts).

The precise location of St. Patrick's Purgatory is unclear. There are two islands in Lough Derg: Station Island, the larger of the two, and Saints Island. Both comprised the site of a single Celtic monastic community and may have been located on the site of a still earlier pagan magical place. The location of the entry in legend seems to have been on Saints Island, though confusion of the two islands became common, and Saints Island seems to have been the preferred location through the Middle Ages. St. Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, did set up in the early 1130s on Saints Island a dependency of the Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul, Armagh, under the control of the Augustinians Canons Regular, who certainly had been established, by St. Norbert, by 1100. Eventually the Canons assumed authority over both islands until the site was taken over by the Franciscans in 1632.

It is at about the time of the arrival of the Augustinians in the early 1130s, despite the suggestions of Irish legends, that St. Patrick's Purgatory truly became a destination of pilgrimage and penitence. It remained so until its suppression by Pope Alexander VI in 1497. So powerful, however, had the site become that pilgrimages resumed in the sixteenth century, with Station Island assuming primacy, maybe because it did in fact have a likely cave. The attraction of the site has been enduring. The church on Station Island was destroyed, and later rebuilt, in 1632, 1701, and 1727. In 1931, an enormous new church was built and pilgrimages to the site continue to this day. Such was, and is, the power of St. Patrick's Purgatory.

Regardless of what one makes of Irish legends, the first recorded pilgrimage was in 1152. The tradition had been so firmly established by that time that the "Purgatory" became a ubi-quitous object of theological and literary attention in the second half of the twelfth century, though the experiences of the pilgrims were probably less like that of Owain than that of Antonio Mannini in 1411, who recounts the bureaucracy of the necessary permissions and a penitential experience of a more familiar, mundane kind. Nevertheless, it is important to remember the mysterious potency of the story of St. Patrick's Purgatory in the mid to late twelfth century, when the religious reality of Purgatory far surpassed any question of geo-graphical actuality.

The seminal literary document associated with the rebirth of Purgatory at this special place, and the document that first gives an account of Owain's journey, is the Tractatus de Purga-torio Sancti Patricii by H. of Sawtrey. Here we are on firmer historical ground, at least in the origins and transmission of the narrative, because the text exists and its genesis can be reconstructed from contemporary ecclesiastical sources, even if they are not always precise. What seems probable is that a Cistercian monk, Gilbert, was sent with several other monks in the late 1150s to establish a Benedictine dependency in Ireland, probably at Baltinglas. Unable to speak Irish, Gilbert was given the assistance of an interpreter, Owain, either a Cistercian monk or an assistant to the Cistercians. Owain, in the course of a two-and-a-half-year association with Gilbert, told him of his own marvelous visit to Purgatory at Lough Derg. Gilbert returned to England by 1159 to become abbot of Basingwerk and repeatedly recounted Owain's story. Gilbert told H. of Sawtrey (the H was expanded to Henricus by Matthew of Paris in the thirteenth century) the story of Owain's journey. Among those to whom Gilbert recounted the story was another H., Henry, abbot of Sartis, who urged Sawtrey (or Saltrey) to commit the narrative to writing. The Tractatus itself merely identifies the author, the first H., as a monk of Saltereia, but there was a Cistercian monastery at Saltrey in Huntingdonshire. The person addressed in the Tractatus, the second H., is identified as the abbot of Sartis, probably Henry of Wardon.

Although the Tractatus does not specify, the visit of Owain to Purgatory occurred, according to various sources, some time between 1146 and 1154: 1154 according to the Chronicles of Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), 1153 according to Matthew of Paris, or 1146-47 according to probabilities established by Robert Easting from the monastic records of abbacies. Henry of Saltrey did not in fact commit Gilbert's account of Owain's story to writing until some time later, perhaps 1179-81, or even later in 1189-90. The latter is the more traditional date; the former is persuasively argued by Easting, the most distinguished scholar on the subject.

The Tractatus is a serious Latin prose work which begins by establishing the authenticity of purgatorial doctrine by referring to St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine, even citing Augustine's division of the afterlife into four parts: the boni (the saved), the mali (the damned), the non valde mali (the "not completely evil" in a middle state), and the boni non valde (the "not completely good" in another intermediate state). The invocation of the authority of St. Augustine is especially odd in that St. Augustine believed Purgatory to be a "state," and the Tractatus, by its very nature, identifies Purgatory as a place, with a very specific location. The tendency of commentators between St. Augustine and the Tractatus had been towards a "place," though the Church was not definitive on the topic even at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Moreover, in the Tractatus, Purgatory seems in many ways to be the abode of the non valde mali and the Earthly Paradise seems to be the abode of the boni non valde. This is at odds with the idea in the Tractatus that souls, after purgation, move to the Earthly Paradise for an undetermined period of time before being allowed entry into Heaven. (The very idea of the Earthly Paradise as part of the afterlife was eventually rejected at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, even as that council affirmed the doctrine of Purgatory as a matter of dogma.) Thus, the Tractatus is not here entirely self-consistent, but it remains a serious, generally orthodox didactic treatise.

Soundly, it draws on Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1078-1141) for much of its preface and many of the torments. More fancifully, it relies heavily on the apocalyptic, late-fourth-century Apoc-alypse of St. Paul for its visions of the sufferings of the souls and the idea of the bridge over the river of Hell. The Tractatus did transmit important doctrinal opinions, among them that souls in Purgatory did not know how long they would be there, nor, indeed, did they know that they would eventually be saved. This is quite different from the Gast's certainty in The Gast of Gy (early fourteenth century) that he would be delivered from suffering at Easter; it is likewise different from the appealing comfort that some of the souls in Dante's Purgatorio take in knowing that they will eventually see the Beatific Vision.

Some of the opinions in the Tractatus are debatable, but much about Purgatory was debatable in the twelfth century. It does not assign souls to especially appropriate punishments as was so gloriously accomplished later in the Divine Comedy; it does not even consider specific sins at all in its presentation of Purgatory. It does, however, intersperse homilies and appeals to authority which embed the legend of Owain in a context that gives it greater theological weight. What is most important is that the Tractatus, in particular its central engaging account of the journey of Sir Owain, was an enormous hit. It survives, in whole or in part, in over one hundred and fifty manuscripts in Latin alone, including the Chronicles of Roger of Wendover, the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais (d. 1264), and an account by Henricus Salteriensis of Purgatorio Sancti Patricii in the Patrologia Latina, as collected and edited by Migne (PL 180.977-1004), and in over three hundred translations and adapta-tions in almost every European vernacular, ranging from a Sicilian version that adds King Arthur and transforms the mountain described in the Tractatus into Mount Etna to a lively version by Marie de France (fl. 1175-90), Espurgatoire S. Patriz. In addition, there are countless references to the story such as the description in the Legenda aurea of St. Patrick being led to the gates of Hell.

Four versions survive in Middle English: the stanzaic version printed here from the Auchinlick Manuscript; two fifteenth-century manuscripts of a version in couplets; the earliest English version in ten manuscripts of the South English Legendary (ranging up to 714 lines in length); and a quatrain fragment transcribed by Thomas Hearne from a fragment in MS Harley 4012, itself based on a South English Legendary version. Two other pieces, not connected to Owain, complete the Middle English corpus of works on St. Patrick's Purgatory: a short narrative of the journey of a certain Nicholas in the Legenda aurea and a prose account of the 1409 Vision of William Staunton, preserved in two fifteenth-century manuscripts. Nicholas' vision is rather more like Owain's; Staunton's is a more eclectic account.

To anyone who knows anything of the Middle English literature of St. Patrick's Purgatory, it may seem odd to give the title Sir Owain to an edition of this poem. Ordinarily it has been known simply as St. Patrick's Purgatory or Owayne Miles. However, the former seems too general and the latter is adopted from the running headings of the couplet version in MS Cotton Caligula A. ii. The title Sir Owain seems to me more precise, and consistent with what is by far the most common spelling of the knight's name in the Auchinleck stanzaic version.

The Middle English stanzaic poem is largely consistent with the narrative in the Tractatus, even though the English version probably derived from an Anglo-Norman intermediary rather than directly from any of the Latin versions. It does omit prefatory material and much of the interspersed didactic material, as is so often the case with fourteenth-century English adaptations of works from Latin and French. However, the structure of Sir Owain is essentially that of the Tractatus, especially with regard to the geography of Purgatory. In the English version, Sir Owain is changed from an Irish knight into an Englishman, a Northumbrian who has been in the service of King Stephen (r. 1135-54), and he is, probably following Roger of Wendover's version, guilty of serious sins. His visit to St. Patrick's Purgatory is to do penance for the evils in the life he has led.

Still, the overall structure does mirror the Tractatus. After securing the reluctant permission of the bishop and the prior, Owain undertakes fifteen days of prayer and fasting before beginning his journey. These are prescribed rituals before entry into the Purgatory common to virtually all versions and practiced in fact at the shrine. Owain is directed by the prior through a door towards a hall without walls where he will meet and receive instruction from thirteen, rather than the fifteen of the Tractatus, white-robed men, who look remarkably like other-worldly Augustinian Canons Regular, who normally wore a white habit. They remind Owain that he is in grave danger and that he must resist the temptations of the fiends, especially not to return without completing the journey, which would be disastrous. They do, however, give him the comfort that, if he is in serious difficulty, he need only repeat the name of God to be preserved. Owain proceeds and is quickly greeted by loud and gruesome fiends who immediately urge him to go back to the upper world.

The geography of the Purgatory proper follows the pattern of the Tractatus, despite a few differences in detail. First the fiends make a fire and throw Owain in, but he calls upon the Lord and the fire is put out. Then the fiends lead him to the first true scene of purgation, a field in a valley where wounded naked souls of both sexes are fastened face down with iron nails. Unlike the Tractatus, which does not associate souls with specific sins, Sir Owain identifies these souls as guilty of sloth, one of the seven deadly sins - not just laziness, but a slowness to a full commitment to the laws of God and the precepts of charity. Conversely, in the next area, the souls are bound face up and are tormented by dragons, newts, and snakes, and the hooks of the devils. Sir Owain adds to the Tractatus that these souls are guilty of gluttony, another of the seven deadly sins, and they rightly, in a detail unique to Sir Owain, accuse the knight of having committed this sin. They tempt him to return, but he calls upon God and proceeds.

In the next field, souls are hanging by various body parts, some immersed in fire, some on gridirons. These are thieves, backbiters, false swearers, and false witnesses; Owain may be guilty of such sins because he recognizes acquaintances in the group (a detail not in the Tractatus). Some notion of the punishment fitting the crime, also unique to Sir Owain, is apparent in the false swearers and witnesses hanging by their tongues, but the punishments are not consistently condign even within this field.

Owain next confronts the "wheel of fire," to which sinners are affixed, spinning rapidly. The sin here is identified as covetousness, and Owain is accused of such greed by the demons and bound to the wheel. While other souls are rotating in and out of fire and being burnt to powder, Owain utters the name of God and is again delivered. The fiends then bring Owain to a great mountain from which souls, some rising like sparks, are blasted by a cold wind into a hot and stinking river. He suffers this punishment, pointedly identified as the penalty for malice and spite, more completely than any other, but is again restored by calling God's name. The next torment is the house of fire and smoke. In a recurring motif, the devils tempt Owain to go back, but he perseveres and observes souls in molten baths up to various heights on their bodies. They are guilty of usury, not a deadly sin but a fundamental violation of charity. Though unnamed other sins also seem to be punished here, the demons accuse Owain of "money-lending," that is, usury. The poet of the English version seems to be drawing up a "bill of particulars" against the knight. Again he survives.

Then a blast of fire makes Owain think that he must be at the true pit of Hell. The demons throw him in, but he again is saved by saying the name of God, though he is somewhat the worse for purgatorial wear. The Tractatus identifies this pit as not really the true pit of Hell, but a demonic deceit, in that the true location of Hell will come later. Sir Owain makes no mention of this deceit, and true Hell does come later, but in some sense it is potentially a true Hell for Owain because it would have been permanent if he had not been rescued by calling upon God and, indeed, it is the place of those guilty of the most fundamental of all the deadly sins - pride. That Owain shows signs of suffering associates him with the sin and reminds us that he is, after all, not there like a distanced visionary, but flesh and blood, in a real place.

The horrors continue as beasts with sixty eyes and sixty hands, apparently significant of an indeterminately large number, seize the knight and threaten to throw him into a stinking, burning river - the most terrifying sight yet seen. Although the punishments so far have been loosely borrowed, through the Tractatus, from the Apocalypse of St. Paul, the bridge over this foul river is especially reminiscent of the Apocalypse. The bridge crosses the boiling river that covers true Hell. The poem emphasizes the source and the horror by referring to the "dominical" of St. Paul, apparently an admonitory Sunday reading, of uncertain substance, but likely based on the Apocalypse. Owain must cross the bridge as demons throw stones at him and fiends in the river wait to snatch him. The daunting bridge is high, narrow, and sharp as a razor. The devils again tempt him to give up and go back, but Owain proceeds and astonishingly does not find the bridge sharp or the crossing as perilous as he had feared. The bridge does not gradually become a broader road to salvation as in the Tractatus, but Owain's success is noteworthy and his purgation is complete.

At this point Owain reaches the Earthly Paradise and is given a cloth of gold that he puts on and is healed of the wounds he has incurred. It is striking that so gruesome are the purgatorial scenes that it easily goes unnoticed that almost all of the rest of the poem is devoted to the Earthly Paradise, an amount roughly equal to the number of lines devoted to the torments. It is important to keep in mind that the poet, like the author of the Tractatus, seems equally interested in Owain's ultimate visions of the glories of the fully purged. After great fear and suffering, consolation and celebration come. Owain enters a glittering world of flowers, gems, choirs, and birdsong and he beholds a procession of the saved who have not yet been admitted to their ultimate bliss in Heaven. He is in the Garden of Eden, a place where we would all have lived were it not for the sin of Adam, which is emphasized during the tour that Owain is given by two archbishops. The knight sees "the tree of life," oddly described as the means of Adam's temptation, though scripturally Adam and Eve ate of "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," and it was to keep them from "the tree of life" that God placed Michael at the gates to keep them out after their expulsion.

As the two archbishops explain the Earthly Paradise, a place of complete natural fulfillment where all of the senses are gratified, there is the only mention in the whole poem of the doctrine of suffrages - that the living can help the dead with prayers, masses, and almsgiving - a doctrine that became central to Dominican preaching on Purgatory from the thirteenth century. Although Sir Owain is a fourteenth-century poem it is here true to its twelfth-century Cistercian source which naturally emphasized personal penance more than suffrages. Never-theless, the foregoing summary of the structure of the whole poem suggests that Sir Owain gradually becomes its own poem, especially in references to specific sins and accusations of Owain of particular offenses. The result is not entirely systematic, but it is significantly dif-ferent and almost transforms the poem into a metrical romance.

It has become, in its abbreviation and its vitality, very much an English poem and Sir Owain is very much a doughty English knight who has been in the service of King Stephen. When he sets out on his journey, and more clearly as he proceeds, he is much more like a romance hero than a religious visionary. As in so many Arthurian romances, Owain is on a quest; he sets out to do something that is dangerous, difficult, and worthwhile in an encompassing world that would have him, despite adversity, succeed.

That this version of St. Patrick's Purgatory should take on rather the form of romance than of vision should not be surprising. It appears in the Auchinleck Manuscript, which was produced in a commercial London scriptorium between 1330 and 1340, for a popular audience. The dialect seems to be that of London, certainly of the East Midlands. True, Sir Owain is, in the manuscript, sandwiched between two religious works (The Life of St. Catherine and "The Desputisoun bitwen the Bodi and the Soul"), and the Auchinleck Manuscript has many religious pieces, but the manuscript is better known for its abundant inclusion of romances suited to a popular taste, many of them excellent, such as Guy of Warwick, Floris and Blauncheflur, Bevis of Hamtoun, Amis and Amiloun, and Sir Orfeo.

It is not, however, just the company the poem keeps that suggests that it is a didactic religious poem struggling to become a romance. The focus in Sir Owain is very much the knight and the adventures he experiences, even though the adventures are fashioned out of the stuff of religious tract. It is true that Sir Owain starts out as a sinful man, but that is not a disqualification for a romance hero; think only of Sir Amadace, whose hero must painstakingly regain his kingdom because he has been negligent in his religious life, or Sir Gowther, who has raped nuns, incinerated a convent, abducted wives, and murdered men, women, and children by the score, only, after extended penance, to become a saint. Sir Owain is faced with the fundamental religious challenge: to reform his life and achieve salvation. That his desire to undertake the rigors of St. Patrick's Purgatory is unmotivated within the poem is quite like the kind of "vertical motivation" characteristic of romance: the hero is moved to action not as much by psychological or religious introspection as by what the narrative needs in order to demonstrate its courtly or moral ideals.

Perhaps most persuasively, the story has a happy ending, a prime requisite of romance, and the narrator, though he allows, even insists, that we be frightened for Owain's sake, as well as our own, never lets us believe that Owain will be anything but successful. The trials may be difficult but the happy outcome is assured. Visions all, in some way, have a happy ending, but they tend to be admonitory. Sir Owain is decidedly a narrative in which the questing hero, because of his innate characteristics and the way in which those characteristics suit the values of the world in which he lives, is tested, but ultimately successful. When Owain undertakes his adventures, it is less a matter of the blinding insight of the visionary than the recovery of that from which he has been dispossessed. In this case, of course, it is the ultimate dispossession and consequently the ultimate recovery - Christian redemption - but the circumstances are reminiscent of romance losses and recoveries as early as Havelok. Havelok's recovery is primarily secular, while Owain's is spiritual, and even the magic talisman with which Owain is provided, firmly in the tradition of romance, is appropriately spiritual - the name of God.

It is not that Owain's success is necessarily permanent or secure; he is not guaranteed a long and happy life issuing in assured salvation as some romance heroes are. In some respects, Sir Owain is more like Redcrosse in Book 1 of Spenser's Faerie Queene. Not that Redcrosse was a sinner, except in the sense that everyone is a sinner, but he does have to return to the fray after slaying the dragon: even after purificatory and enlightening tests, Christian life must still be lived, and this is very much the situation of Owain; but, for reasons that make sense best in the world of romance, Owain, like Redcrosse, will live out his life in a world that is ultimately on his side. He is not given the assurance, or rather we are not given it, of a long and happy life like Sir Orfeo or Sir Cleges, but the familiar "reprieve of romance" puts him in a morally privileged and optimistic position.

Much else about Sir Owain suggests that it is at least on the borderline of romance. As a man of flesh and blood, who suffers during his journey, Owain experiences formidable trials, but we are not truly worried. We almost rejoice in them because the narrator will not let us suspect anything other than eventual success. The structure of the narrative makes it unthinkable that Owain actually will be destroyed or fall into the pit of Hell. The narrator ensures that this is a possibility we never entertain even as we observe pain and trial. It just does not feel like a story that will end in anything but eventual vindication and triumph.

The poem feels like a romance in other ways, besides its presentation of a struggling hero within a universe that rewards the kind of person he is or wishes to be. On a very basic level, the verse form is of the tail-rhyme stanza: six lines comprised of two tetrameters, a trimeter, two tetrameters, and a trimeter, rhyming AABCCB. The form was so commonly used in popular romance that Chaucer employed a version of it to parody romances gone bad in his Tale of Sir Thopas. In Sir Owain this familiar romance verse form is well-managed; the narrator's willingness to let the story flow beyond the ends of individual stanzas allows for a fluidity if not felicity. Moreover, the narrator's relationship with the audience is very much like the "confidential" relationship that is characteristic of romance. We are, we feel, all in this together. The narrator, for example, often reminds us that his story is based on antecedents, not in the ponderous citations of tract, but in the relatively informal manner of romance: "As it seyt [says] in the storie" (line 144), or "As it seyt in this rime" (line 174). Similarly, the narrator addresses us with direct exhortations: "Jhesu ous thider bring!" ("May Jesus bring us there," line 156); "For Godes love, bewar therbi!" (line 425); and "Ich man bewar therbi!" (line 570). The narrator even calls for our attention in the manner of romance:
Now herknes to mi talking:
Ichil thou tel of other thing,
Yif ye it wil yhere. (lines 166-68)
I will
If; hear
Although the opening lines are missing, it would not be hard to imagine it beginning: "Listeth, lordes, in good entent . . ." (CT VII[B2]712). In addition, the demons in Purgatory, though they are gruesome, threatening, and continually putting Owain in danger of damnation, often express themselves with a grim but amusing irony that relieves the unrelenting gloom and fire of orthodox Purgatory:
And seyd he was comen with flesche and fel
To fechen him the joie of Helle
Withouten ani ending. (lines 322-24)
said they; flesh and skin
fetch him to
Hem schal sone com a bevereche,
That schal nought thenche hem gode. (lines 545-46)
To them; drink
This ben our foules in our caghe,
And this is our courtelage
And our castel tour. (lines 643-45)
birds; cage
All of this rings of romance rather than tract.

Even the bridge over the river of Hell that Owain must cross to reach the Earthly Paradise, firmly based though it is in the Tractatus, seems more like the bridge that Lancelot crosses in Chrétien de Troyes than it does like a passage over the infernal. Though unscathed, unlike Lancelot, Owain faces a romance-like challenge. And when he arrives in the Earthly Paradise, although the doctrine is, again, directly from the Tractatus, the world bears similarities to the unearthly otherworlds that are entered by Orfeo and Sir Cleges. He sees a procession, not of maidens, but of all human estates (though a heavy emphasis is, perhaps appropriately, placed on the clergy). More striking even are the catalogues of flowers and gems, which are appropriate to the terrestrial paradise, but sound more like the catalogues in the Alliterative and Stanzaic Mortes and in countless other romance descriptions of ideal beauty.

The archbishops who instruct Owain do explain matters of doctrine concerning the nature of the fate of the souls in Purgatory and the Earthly Paradise, but their affirmation of suffrages - sound doctrine, though rather an odd Dominican concession in this essentially Cistercian view of the afterlife - is rather in the mode of romance guidance to the hero than doctrinal exegesis. Even when true in substance to his ultimate source, this narrator has the capacity to make us feel that we are in a romance.

It is, however, in the shape of Owain's whole experience that the poem seems to have transformed Owain from a visionary or pilgrim. A good, if misguided, English knight sets out, body and soul, to face dangers that his world presents but he is prepared for. The ideals in Sir Owain seem, quite appropriately, the four cardinal moral virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are the virtues in which he has found himself lacking and these are the virtues he embodies as he suffers and triumphs in a world that will not let him fail in his quest for Redemption. The job is not complete; that comes only with eternal salvation, but Owain has brought himself into accord with the ideals, and is armed with the virtues, that are rewarded in the world in which he lives. Tract has become romance.

Go To Sir Owain
Select Bibliography


National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1 (Auchinleck), fols. 25r-31v. [c. 1330-40]


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Laing, David, and William B. D. D. Turnbull, eds. Owain Miles and Other Inedited Fragments of Ancient English Poetry. Edinburgh: [s.n.], 1837.

The Auchinleck Manuscript. National Library of Scotland Advocates' MS 19.2.1. Facsimile with an introduction by Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: The Scolar Press, 1977.


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