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King Arthur and King Cornwall: Introduction

As a story of fantastic knightly adventure, King Arthur and King Cornwall resembles Chaucer's Squire's Tale and other popular romances like Sir Launfal . The Arthurian knights gain victory by getting control of a magical horse, sword, and horn; to come by these, they must first gain mastery (through a kind of religious ritual or white magic) over a seven-headed sprite who serves King Cornwall, improbably named Burlow Beanie. To seal their victory, Sir Gawain vows to carry Cornwall's daughter back with them to Little Britain. The magical elements are embedded within an overt contest of honor and prowess between the knights of the Round Table and Cornwall's court; a series of ritualized public boasts, serving both as speeches and as acts that define heroic behavior, initiate this contest. The plot begins when Guenevere challenges Arthur's boast to Gawain that his Round Table excels all others. The King (here ruler of Little Britain, or Brittany, rather than England) and his entourage travel in disguise through "many a strange country" (line 33) until they reach the palace of King Cornwall; once again, Arthur's rival in an English narrative is the lord of a marginal, Celtic territory in Britain. Cornwall's boasts - of the daughter he fathered on Guenevere, his magical possessions, and his general superiority to Arthur - openly offend the chivalric honor of the Round Table, and demand reprisal. This redress occurs first in the form of counterboasts, in which the Arthurian knights stake their reputation on living up to their bold words. Afterwards, Sir Bredbeddle nearly suffers defeat in combat with the monster, but then snatches victory through an exorcism of sorts. Cornwall ends with each of the knights achieving his vow, through the assistance of the monster.

In making boasts or vows the essence of chivalric honor, Cornwall resembles Avowyng (and to some extent Ragnelle , Gologras , Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , Jeaste , and other poems where fulfilling one's spoken word controls the story). In upholding the excellence of Arthurian chivalry, however, the fragmentary Cornwall contains no twists, suspense, or reconciliations. King Cornwall is a false braggart, and the knights of the Round Table easily accomplish their vows and dispatch him. (In Arthurian tradition, the King of Cornwall is Mark, uncle - mother's brother - of Sir Tristan, who is the King's rival for the love of Isolde of Ireland.) But neither King Arthur nor Sir Gawain is the hero of this poem, though in the first lines Arthur refers to their typifying heroic relationship of mother's brother-sister's son. Instead, the central figure is Sir Bredbeddle, the former antagonist of Sir Gawain in The Greene Knight , now a full companion of the Round Table. As the Green Knight, Bredbeddle is Arthur's great champion, and he dominates the action in the second half of the poem - much of which consists of uproarious knock-about between the Green Knight and the demonic Burlow Beanie. Sir Gawain plays a relatively small role in Cornwall ; his vow, unfulfilled in the surviving text, to "worke my will" (line 155) with Cornwall's daughter, recalls his rakish character in the later French romances, or in Jeaste . Nevertheless, the very naming of Bredbeddle as the Green Knight makes clear that the composer assumed the audience's familiarity with the romances of Sir Gawain.

King Arthur and King Cornwall survives in the Percy Folio Manuscript. Like Turke , it occurs in that section of the volume where about half of each page had been ripped out to start fires, and so lacks about half its content; as a result, a story that was already more attentive to large motifs and bold turns of plot than to subtle details has lost a number of crucial events. Cornwall redeploys an array of traditional features of romance story. In particular, the pilgrimage, the boasts (or "gabs"), and the encounter with a magically powerful opponent resemble medieval anecdotes told about Charlemagne, though similar episodes also occur in Arthurian narratives like Gologras and Turke . Yet Cornwall may not have come by these elements through specific literary sources. Instead, its plot may reflect motifs connected to Arthurian legend from its origins, or, perhaps most likely of all, it may simply represent a reworking of elements popularly associated with the knights of the Round Table in the late Middle Ages. Whether the seventeenth-century ballad retells a medieval romance of Gawain and Arthur, or improvises its own image of medieval chivalry on the basis of notions that earlier Arthurian romances had put in circulation, Cornwall strongly conveys the enduring glamour of the Round Table's might and magic. It also reiterates a basic romance paradigm, by which the king and his chief knights journey to a strange, outlying territory, defeat the monstrous forces they encounter, and bring that formerly mysterious place into the governance of the monarch. This process of appropriation or domestication finds its ultimate symbol in Gawain's possessing Cornwall's daughter; forced marriage becomes the means of bringing this wayward creature back under the control of her legitimate (if not biological) father, and of joining the recalcitrant fringe to the center.

Cornwall preserves a rough version of ballad meter. It falls mainly into quatrains rhyming xaxa , though the a-rhyme sometimes continues into an additional couplet, producing some six-line stanzas. The metrical feet and the number of stresses in each line are irregular, though much of the verse falls into the ballad formula of a four-stress line followed by a three-stress line.


King Arthur and King Cornwall survives (with the losses mentioned above) in the Percy Folio Manuscript, pp. 24-31 (described in the introductory material to The Greene Knight ). The cramped hand and blotted lines have become more difficult to read over time; in transcribing the text, I have made full use of the nineteenth-century editions of Madden, Furnivall and Hales, and Child, sometimes following their readings where the script now seems indistinct or indecipherable. I have regularized orthography so that u/v and i/j appear according to modern usage; abbreviations have been expanded, numerals spelled out, and modern punctuation and capitalization added.

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Selected Bibliography


British Library Additional MS 27879 (The Percy Folio). Pp. 24-33.

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.

Child, Francis James. 1884. See Bibliography of Editions and Works Cited.


Jost, Jean E. "The Role of Violence in Aventure : 'The Ballad of King Arthur and the King of Cornwall' and 'The Turke and Gowin."' Arthurian Interpretations 2.2 (1988), 47-57.

Krappe, Alexander Haggerty. "Mediaeval Literature and the Comparative Method." Speculum 10 (1935), 270-76.