Back to top

The Carle of Carlisle: Introduction

Like The Marriage of Sir Gawain, The Carle of Carlisle is a post-medieval version of a surviving tail-rhyme romance. Besides giving witness to the continuing appeal of chivalric plots among popular audiences, Carle is especially valuable for including a crucial episode that the extant version of Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle omits. This is the beheading scene (lines 379 ff.), which resembles similar motifs in Turke, Greene Knight, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In Carle, Gawain's obliging beheading of his host is the act of courtesy that breaks the spell, restoring the erstwhile good warrior to his proper identity. The transformation also strongly resembles the climactic events in Ragnelle and Marriage, whereby a beautiful and noble maiden is likewise saved from "nigromancy." In a popular story like Carle, the beheading episode precipitates a Frog Prince metamorphosis; the tale presents this less as a rudimentary psychology - a change of heart - than as a complete change of character, or rather a return from the monstrous to a true identity. The surviving text of Carlisle, however, omits this consequential scene, which the Carle convincingly shows was a feature of the established plot. In Carlisle, the Carle must simply vow to reform himself, which makes for a much less vivid and memorable turnabout.

Carlisle and Carle are not directly related to one another as source or derivative, and so give evidence for still another medieval version of the story in some lost common ancestor. Carle recalls Avowyng (and Carlisle) in bringing Sir Gawain together with Kay and Baldwin, and, in common with many of the other popular Gawain romances, it makes the area surrounding Carlisle in Cumberland, near the Scottish border, the setting for Arthurian adventure. As Carle makes clear, the point of the story is to prove Gawain's worthiness as a knight, to show that his courtesy indeed justifies his reputation and the chivalry of the Round Table. Both the courtesy and the hardiness of Arthur's knights are put to the test by the seeming bluffness of the Carle; his "lodlye" appearance and behavior (line 182) make him, like Ragnelle, not only monstrous but uncouth and uncourtly. In the end, however, the poem presents the Carle's challenges not as conflicts of values between knights and churls, but as the result of magical plotting; its undoing of the spell simply confirms the superiority of chivalry. Not only does the chivalric code absorb the Carle's rude buffets and demands, it actually transforms him to a properly compassionate and honorable knight. Gawain's courteous submission - his deliberate control of his personal strength and his political and social superiority - demonstrates not simply that every Carle's home is his castle, but that true knighthood cuts across and consolidates class distinctions. By the conclusion, the audience sees the Carle not as an enemy of knighthood, but as another of the knights of the Round Table. The other motifs of reconciliation in the poem - Gawain's marriage to the Carle's daughter, and the Carle's feasting of Arthurian knighthood - are then simply themes within the larger movement of the romance plot towards reunion and restored identity. These normative motifs also help clarify the meaning of the central episode, for though the Carle's apparently eccentric hospitality seems to violate or distend ordinary expectations, its effect is to allow the standards of chivalric conduct to prevail.


The Carle of Carlisle appears in the Percy Folio Manuscript, dating from the middle of the seventeenth century (see introduction to The Greene Knight). The poem is not preserved in formal ballad stanzas, but simply in rhyming couplets. See Bibliography for other editions.

Go To The Carle of Carlisle

British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio). Pp. 448-55.

Editions (arranged chronologically)

Madden, Frederic. 1839. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.

Hales, John W., and Frederick J. Furnivall. 1868. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.