Sir Degare: Introduction
SIR DEGARÉ, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES
1 See bibliography.
2 Because of the incomplete state of the poem I have followed Gustav Schleich in creating a composite text using lines of Cambridge Ff. 2.38 to fill internal lacunae and the Rawlinson Poetry 34 MS to supply the conclusion. W. H. French and C. B. Hale also use the Auchinleck MS with insertions from Cambridge where needed, but have omitted both an opening couplet and the last thirty lines; they prefer instead to paraphrase the conclusion of the poem.
3 See I. C. Cunningham and Derek Pearsall's introduction to the facsimile of the Auchinleck MS. "[Auchinleck's] significance is in its early date, in the range, variety and intrinsic interest of its contents, and in the evidence it provides for English poetry, of book production and readership in the period before Chaucer" (p. viii).
4 See J. W. Hales and F. J. Furnivall, eds. Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Ballads and Romances (London: N. Trübner, 1868); J. Burke Severs, A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050-1500 (New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts & Sciences, 1967); William C. Stokoe, Jr., "The Double Problem of Sir Degare," PMLA 70 (1976), 518-34.
5 Clark H. Slover, "Sire Degarre: A Study of a Medieval Hack Writer's Methods," Texas University Studies in English 11 (1931), 5, note 1. See also George P. Faust, Sire Degare: A Study of the Texts and Narrative Structure (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1935).
6 Muriel Carr, Modern Language Notes 53 (1938), 153 ff.
7 Gustav Schleich, ed., Sire Degarre, Englishche Textbibliothek, No. 19 (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1929).
8 W. H. French and C. B. Hale, eds., Middle English Metrical Romances (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930), I, 287-320.
9 William C. Stokoe, Jr., pp. 518-34. Stokoe's thesis is an attempt to overturn the negative valuations of the poem by pointing out the variations between the version found in the Auchinleck MS and that in a later MS significant enough to suggest two different versions rather than corrupt transmission and redaction.
10 Bruce Rosenberg, "Medieval Popular Literature: Folkloric Sources," The Popular Literature of Medieval England, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan, Tennessee Studies in Literature 28 (Knoxville, 1985), 61-84.
11 G. V. Smithers, "Story-Patterns in Some Breton Lays," Medium Aevum 22 (1953), 61-92.
12 M. A. Potter, Sohrab and Rustem: The Epic Theme of a Combat Between Father and Son, Grimm Library, No. 14 (London: D. Nutt, 1902).
13 Laura Hibbard Loomis, p. 327.
14 R. S. Loomis, Arthurian Tradition & Chrétien de Troyes (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949). Elements from Bricriu's Feast revolve around the scene in which Degaré stumbles upon a castle on an island inhabited only by women and a yellow-haired dwarf.
15 Nicolas Jacobs, "Old French Degare and Middle English Degarre and Deswarre," Notes & Queries n.s. 17 (1970), 164-65, suggests that Degaré's name may be related to the OF esgare, which means lost or destitute. It is related to the ME deswarre, which according to the MED is related to knight errancy, the OED defines the term diswaryed which means "strayed, gone astray or gotten lost."
16 See Cheryl Colopy, "Sir Degare: A Fairy Tale Oedipus," Pacific Coast Philology 17 (1982), 31-39. She suggests that "the importance of a male heir is the central social problem in the story."
17 See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1977) and Derek Brewer, Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narratives of the Family Drama in English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1980).
18 See Laura Hibbard Loomis, p. 302.
19 The Catskin Cinderella motif, also known as Allerleirauh, involves a young woman who is forced to leave home because of her father's unwelcome sexual advances.
20 See Colopy, p. 35.
21 Colopy, pp. 32-33. The "Green Knight" refers to the villain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
22 John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 373.
23 In Lay le Freine, found in this volume, the mother fears allegations of adultery (twins were thought to be produced by separate fathers). In her anxiety she considers murdering one of the twin girls. Her maid talks her into abandoning the child in an ash tree near a monastery where she is subsequently raised to adulthood. Boswell notes that abandoned children were often suspended in trees to prevent wild animals from attacking them.
24 See Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). See also Thomas Hahn, " The Medieval Oedipus," Comparative Literature 32 (1980), 225-37.
25 See Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey (London: George Allen, 1954), pp. 260-63.
26 Oblation meant that abandoned children were offered to God vis-à-vis leaving them at the doorstep of a monastery.
27 See David F. Johnson, "The Dwerff seyd neyther 'bow ne be': 'Ne bu ne ba' and 'Sir Degaré, Line 703," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 93 (1992), 121-23. Johnson argues that the phrase means "to say neither one thing or another, nothing at all." Absent in the Auchinleck MS, the phrase is present in the later Rawlinson MS.
28 The Celts were well known for their powers of enchantment.
29 See Colopy, p. 36.
30 Colopy, p. 35.
Much of the modern scholarship on Sir Degaré is concerned with aesthetics. While some scholars consider the poem to be imbued with positive attributes such as brevity and coherence without the usual digression of long romances,  others regard it with something approaching contempt. C. H. Slover, for instance, criticizes the poet for "hack-writing," suggesting in rather explicit terms that the poet's work is "inept" and lacks "literary quality." G. P. Faust, writing later than Slover but adopting a similar critical ad hominem position, notes the poet's predilection for creating "stock characters about whom we know at the end little more than we did at the beginning."  These two strongly negative valuations seem to have vitiated perceptions of the poem; despite a positive review by Muriel Carr,  a non-controversial edition by Gustav Schleich,  and an equally neutral edition by French and Hale,  as William Stokoe notes, "the opinions of Slover and Faust seem to have prevailed."  Stokoe's attempt "to vindicate the judgment of the copyists, printers, modern editors, and critics who have admired Sir Degaré," reverses the ad hominem trend laudably, however, by refocusing attention on the poem's intrinsic worth and its crucial place in literary history. Bruce Rosenberg has followed suit by demonstrating the inherent value of the poem's folkloric material. 
While these scholars and critics concern themselves with aesthetics, others are concerned with traditional intertextual issues - sources, analogues and influences. Some scholars claim the poem to be based upon a lost Breton lai, Lai d'Esgaré, while others refute it; still others prefer to leave the question open to speculation or further study.  Mentioned most often in the scholarly discourse are the Sohrab and Rustem story which features a father/son combat, an important motif in Degaré,  an Irish tale, The Second Battle of Moytura, which may have contributed the sword motif,  The Voyage of Maelduin, and Bricriu's Feast, elements of which resonate in the enchanted castle scene.  The strong Oedipal theme may derive from the Legend of Pope Gregory, contained in the Gesta Romanorum as well as in the Auchinleck MS. Whatever the sources or analogues or the pronouncements on the poet's ability, the integrity of the poem itself allows it to stand on its own merits. That fact is nearly lost in the critical and scholarly discourse swirling around it.
Sir Degaré, a heroic knight whose name at least one scholar associates with the lost Breton lay, announces the necessity of establishing an identity.  Like many medieval heroes he needs to prove himself worthy of knighthood by undertaking a quest and overcoming such obstacles as dragons and giants. Unlike many medieval heroes, Degaré's quest is complicated by the circumstances of his birth. Born illegitimately and abandoned by his mother in infancy, Degaré is marginalized both socially and politically. His status as an orphan and foundling early in the poem leaves him almost without an identity, almost without a name.  Degaré's quest, therefore, is twofold: not only must he undergo the ritualized testing that marks passage into the world of chivalry, but he needs to reestablish his kinship relations in order to legitimize his place in the social hierarchy. Degaré is thus compelled to seek out his natal parents and reclaim his patrimony, before he can then establish a life of his own. The resolution of Degaré's dilemma, as some scholars have noted, parallels the psychological development of any child.  The poem is family drama akin to fairytale where children under enchantment resolve psychological conflicts through quests and trials.
The family drama is immediately established by the bizarre relationship between the King of Brittany and his daughter. The narrative opens with the king's challenge to fight his daughter's potential suitors for the honor of her hand in marriage. The widowed king dotes on the princess overmuch, a situation that exceeds a father's protective instincts toward a daughter and points instead toward incest. Found more explicitly in the Catskin Cinderella folktales and Middle English narratives such as Apollonius of Tyre and Emaré,  the incest motif involves the death of the beautiful queen and the substitution by the king of the only woman who matches the attributes of his lost spouse - their daughter.  Usually the daughter runs away to a different kingdom, meets a prince, marries him and lives happily ever after. In Sir Degaré the opportunity for escape is limited until the daughter is brought to the grave of her mother in the woods to commemorate her death. There the princess and her ladies-in-waiting separate from the king's entourage, and while the maids fall asleep under an enchanted chestnut tree the princess wanders away into the woods. At least one scholar reads this as the young woman's effort to escape the tacit sexual advances of her father;  others view it as the awakening of sexual desire.
Whatever the motivations for separating from the group the princess becomes suddenly aware that she is lost and vulnerable to "wilde bestes." At the moment of her greatest fear there suddenly appears a mysterious scarlet-robed stranger. Some scholars have likened this fairy knight to the angel in Joachim's garden or to the demon lover in Tydorel. Perhaps closer parallels may be found in Sir Gowther and Sir Orfeo. In Gowther a demon suddenly appears to the mother of the hero disguised as her husband; he rapes her and prophesies the birth of their child. In Orfeo the fairy king abducts the heroine to the Otherworld after first threatening her with bodily harm. Degaré's fairy knight, proclaiming to have loved her from afar for a long time, seems to combine the attributes of both the fairy king and the demonic "feltered [shaggy] fiend." He is threatening and takes what he wants:
The fairy knight's rape of the nameless princess is clearly a violation of her body, but the poet seems to attenuate the crime by creating a portrayal that one scholar has described as "a curious mixture of benignity, almost solicitousness . . . an analogue of the Green Knight who wields his axe with a smile, laughing even as he strikes."  After the rape, the knight announces the impending birth of a "knave," gives the broken sword given as a token of recognition for their unborn son, and then he "kyst hys lemman and wentt." The rapist seems exonerated, the consequences of his violent act nullified at least from his viewpoint as he vanishes into the woods as quickly as he appeared. The consequences for the princess are much more severe, however, and create the dilemma that leads to Degaré's abandonment. How will she, a virgin, conceal the truth of her pregnancy from her doting father? And more importantly how will she deal with those who point to her father as the culprit?
"Thou best mi lemman ar thou go,
Wether the liketh wel or wo."
Tho nothing ne coude do she
But wep and criede and wolde fle;
And he anon gan hire at holde,
And dide his wille, what he wolde.
He binam hire here maidenhod . . .
will be my lover before
you like it much or hate it
quickly seized her
bereft her of her
The problem of incest, whatever form it takes - father/daughter, mother/son, brother/sister - is as old as the human family itself, but as John Boswell notes, the subject was particularly present in public consciousness in the late Middle Ages. Often associated with abandonment, incest became "a considerable preoccupation among medieval authors."  Boswell points to Pope Gregory whose legend rendered him "the most celebrated exposed child of the Middle Ages." Like Gregory, and so many other illegitimate medieval children, actual and literary, Degaré is abandoned by his mother, an act a modern audience may judge harshly.  But Degaré's mother attempts to make the best of the situation and orchestrates a careful plan. In the infant boy's cradle she includes four pounds of gold, ten of silver, a letter directing the finder to give the babe the tokens at age ten, and special gloves sent for the babe as a gift by her "lemman," his father. Degaré, the illegitimate child, is then spirited away by a maid servant and placed before the door of a hermitage.
Yif ani man hit underyete
Men wolde sai bi sti and strete
That mi fader the King hit wan
should attempt to explain it
The abandonment motif, particularly when linked to incest, is a component of the Oedipal legend scholars see so strongly represented in this poem. An ancient tale, it is most memorably defined by Sophocles in the second of the Theban plays - Oedipus Rex - where Oedipus, who is prophesied to grow up to kill his father and marry his mother, is bound by the feet and taken to Citheron to be abandoned (hence the derivation of Oedipus's name - "swollen foot"). Subsequently he is rescued by a sympathetic shepherd, raised by Polybus in Corinth, only to return to Thebes where he unwittingly fulfills the prophecy. In twelfth-century France the theme appears in the retelling of the story in the Roman de Thebes and becomes central to the medieval stories of Judas Iscariot and Pope Gregory.  But the legend is most familiar to modern audiences through Sigmund Freud's use of it to define the psychological complex he names Oedipal. According to Freud, it is the unconscious fantasy of every male child to "kill" his father in order to marry his mother.  The dilemma of Oedipus for Freud resides not in the dilemma of destiny and choice, as in Sophocles, but rather in the psychological tensions between parent and child.
Left at the door of a hermitage, Degaré is found the next morning and happily received by the kind hermit. This is no ordinary oblational abandonment, as the hermit soon discovers, but one accompanied by written instructions and the material means by which to raise the child.  The hermit christens the infant, names him appropriately "Degarre" (the "lost one"), and finds suitable foster parents until the boy is old enough to begin his education. Then just as so many other male mentors in literature - Chiron to Achilles, Merlin to Arthur, the hermit to Parsifal, Iron John to the golden-haired prince - the hermit prepares Degaré for his passage into the masculine world. At age ten Degaré begins his education; at age twenty, when the hermit has taught the boy everything he knows, Degaré is ready for the next stage of life. In releasing him the hermit returns to the youth his gold, the gloves, the pointless sword, and the letter from his mother which compels Degaré to find his parents. Lacking in horse and armor, still only a child in the chivalric world, he needs to prove himself worthy of knighthood by demonstrating his martial prowess. What better initiation into knighthood than to rescue an earl from a fire-breathing dragon, one of the most formidable enemies the medieval imagination could conjure up. One-to-one combat prepares Degaré psychologically for the greater battles of life. Degaré, who lacks both the training of a knight and a knight's arms, defeats the dragon with an oaken bat. His conquest marks his extraordinary strength and determination, qualities of mind and body necessary for the proper practice of chivalry. At this point in the narrative, "child" Degaré is dubbed "knight" by the Earl. But prowess alone does not guarantee greatness. Sir Degaré's next rite of passage is more complex as he prepares to fight for his patrimony and a legitimate place in society.
The battle between Sir Degaré and the king, his maternal grandfather, takes place when Degaré is twenty years old, and, although twenty years have passed, the situation of his mother in Brittany has remained unchanged, i.e., the apparently ageless princess is still being offered as the reward for the knight who can defeat the king in combat. It is an equal opportunity tournament open not only to knights but to barons, earls, burgesses, and churls. For a knight without a patrimony this is an attractive deal; the winner receives both princess and property. Sir Degaré answers the call, but it is only with great difficulty that he unhorses the stalwart king. For his strength and prowess in arms he wins the hand of the princess who is, of course, his mother. The consummation of their relation is thwarted in the nick of time, however, as Degaré remembers to try the enchanted gloves on the hands of his bride. Like Cinderella's slipper, they fit perfectly and recognition comes immediately to Degaré's mother as "Here viage wex ase red ase blod." Now her closely guarded secret of twenty years can no longer be kept and the revelation is made immediately. The consummation of mother/son incest so central to the Oedipal narratives is thus averted. Unlike Oedipus, the medieval Judas Iscariot, and Pope Gregory, Degaré discovers his error in time, flees his mother's home, and resumes the search for his father.
Although Sir Degaré is on a quest with a specific purpose, he is a practicing knight errant. His wanderings take him far and wide until finally the youthful knight chances upon an island castle with its bridge down and its gates ajar. Degaré, who has depended upon the kindness of strangers all his life, is attracted to the unusual place. Its open access encourages him to enter, stable his horse, and make himself comfortable at the hearth fire. From this point he is presented with sights worthy of any heterosexual male fantasy as it soon becomes clear that, aside from a male dwarf, Degaré has stumbled upon a community of women. And so begins another rite of passage. If the combats with dragon and grandfather test Degaré's martial prowess, then the lady of this castle will educate him in the finer points of chivalric love. Degaré begins to learn about local customs immediately when his comments are met at first with stony silence by four huntresses, then the yellow-haired dwarf, and the ladies-in-waiting.  But the silence is only a prelude to the sensorial delights to follow. Sumptuously wined and dined, serenaded by beautiful women and magical music, Degaré falls into an enchanted sleep.  He awakens to a knightly task which will ultimately prepare him for the most important battle of his life.
In a scenario one scholar has described as a "mirror" to earlier events, Degaré's mission is to rid the lady of an unwanted suitor, a "sterne knight" who has systematically slaughtered her protectors.  The lady, like Degaré's mother, is the only heir to her father's estate. Bound by codes of chivalry to defend the defenseless, Degaré must protect the lady and her household by defeating the marauding knight. The battle scene is as stellarly depicted as the two preceding it. Like the dragon and Degaré's grandfather, the knight proves a worthy opponent. But because the motif calls for the breaking of a magic spell, Degaré prevails and smites his opponent through the "helm, heved and bacinet." The lady is predictably grateful, but any readerly expectation of marriage is deferred until the last of Degaré's battles is fought. Instead of marriage, the lady provides him with new arms, a new horse and enough gold and silver to determine his own immediate future.
The culminating battle between father and son, often compared to the Sohrab and Rustem combat, satisfies all narrative expectations. It reunites the two errant kinsmen, resolves Degaré's desire to know who his father is, and brings his father and mother at last legitimately together. Neither father nor son recognizes the other at the outset of battle until both are unhorsed and begin hand-to-hand combat. When Degaré presents his pointless sword his father recognizes it immediately. The broken sword, which one scholar calls a "metonymy of maleness, signifying power and authority," suggests in its broken state the loss of that power.  The replacement of its point by a father, who has carried it around for twenty years, suggests a restoration of patrilinear authority. Unlike the illegitimate Mordred or Oedipus, both of whom mortally wound their fathers, the breech between father and son is dramatically healed:
The end of the poem is missing in the Auchinleck MS, the leaves having been cut out, a near loss of the conclusion provided only by later manuscripts and printed editions. Degaré's marriage to his mother is undone, his parents are reunited, and he marries the lady of the island castle. The tragedy of Oedipus is thus transformed into comedy where difficult sociopolitical and psychological conflicts are resolved, crimes are forgiven, and all parties live happily ever after.
"What is thi name?" than saide he.
"Certes, men clepeth me Degarre."
O Degarre, sone mine!
Certes ich am fader thine!
And bi thi swerd I knowe hit here:
The point is in min aumenere."
He tok the point and set therto . . .
I am your father
Go To Sir Degaré
Advocates Library of Scotland MS 19.2.1, called the Auchinleck MS. [Dated between 1330 and 1340, it is the earliest manuscript containing the poem. The poem consists of 1065 lines and lacks an ending, an introductory couplet, and a few internal lines.]
British Library MS Egerton 2862. [Dated the late fourteenth century; in this MS, the poem consists of two fragments totalling 161 lines.]
Cambridge University Library MS Ff. 2.38. [Dated approximately 1420-50; the poem begins at fol. 257b and extends to fol. 261b. Located at the end of the manuscript, it consists of 602 lines and is incomplete.]
MS Rawlinson Poetry 34 in the Bodleian Library. [Dated fifteenth century; the poem consists of 989 lines beginning at fol. 10b and ending at 17b. This version is "complete" and provides an ending to the Auchinleck text in this volume.]
MS Douce 261 in the Bodleian Library. [Dated 1561; Sir Degaré, found on leaves 8-14, consists of four fragments totaling 350 lines.]
Additional MS 27879 (Percy Folio) in the British Library. [Dated 1650; Sir Degaré (folio 183b-189a) consists of 900 lines including an ending.]
Early Printed (Black Letter) Editions
Wynkyn de Worde, 4to; J. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. [George Patterson Faust suggests a possible date of 1502-34 (see Sir Degare: The Texts and Their Relations, p. 4). No other copy of this printing survives.]
Wyllyam Copland, 4to; in the British Library. [Possible date 1548-68 according to Faust. No other copy of this printing survives.]
John King, 4to; in the Bodleian Library. [Dated 1560 by Faust. No other copy of this printing survives.]
Laing, David, ed. Sire Degarre, a Metrical Romance of the End of the Thirteenth Century. Edinburgh: Abbotsford Club, 1849.
Carr, Muriel. Sir Degarre, a Middle English Metrical Romance Edited from the Manuscript and Black Letter Texts. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1923.
Rollow, Jack Wilcox. The Text of Sire Degarre. Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1950.
Schleich, Gustav. Sire Degarre. Englische Textbibliothek 19. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1929. [Composite text using Auchinleck to line 1076 and Rawlinson for the conclusion.]
French, W. H., and C. B. Hale, eds. The Middle English Metrical Romances. 1930; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Pp. 287-320.
Rumble, Thomas C., ed., Breton Lays in Middle English. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965. Pp. 44-78.
Utterson, E. V., ed. Select Pieces of Early Popular Poetry, 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1817.
Colopy, Cheryl. "Sir Degaré: A Fairy Tale Oedipus." Pacific Coast Philology 17 (1982), 31-39. [Explores the connection between sexuality and identity.]
Faust, George Patterson. Sir Degaré: A Study of the Texts and Narrative Structure. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1935.
Jacobs, Nicolas. "The Egerton Fragment of Sir Degarre." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 72 (1971), 86-96. [Study of dialect, orthography, and transcription.]
--- ."Old French Degaré and Middle English Degarre and Deswarre." Notes and Queries n.s. 17 (1970), 164-65. [Relates OF esgaré to ME deswarre found in Guy of Warwick.]
---. "The Process of Scribal Substitution and Redaction: A Study of the Cambridge Fragment of Sir Degarre." Medium Aevum 53 (1984), 26-48. [Compares variant readings and discusses transmission.]
---. "Some Creative Misreadings in Le Bone Florence of Rome: An Experiment in Textual Criticism." In Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, eds. Edward Kennedy and Ronald Waldron. Woodbridge: Brewer, 1988. Pp. 279-84.
---."The Lost Conclusion of the Auchinleck Sir Degarre," Notes and Queries, n.s. 37 (1990), 154-58.
---."The Second Revision of Sir Degarre: The Egerton Fragment and Its Congeners." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 85 (1984), 95-107. [Textual comparison of Egerton and Rawlinson MSS.]
Loomis, Laura Hibbard. Medieval Romance in England. London: Oxford University Press, 1924; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1960. Pp. 301-05. [Study of sources and analogues.]
---. "The Auchinleck Manuscript and a Possible London Bookshop of 1330-1340." PMLA 57 (1942), 595-609.
Potter, M. A. Sohrab and Rustem: The Epic Theme of a Combat Between Father and Son. Grimm Library, No. 14. London: D. Nutt, 1902.
Rosenberg, Bruce A. "The Three Tales of Sir Degaré." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 76 (1975), 39-51. [Discusses the poem as a conflation of three folk motifs.]
Slover, Clark H. "Sire Degarre: A Study of a Medieval Hack Writer's Methods." University of Texas Studies in English, 11 (1931), 6-23. [Argues the poem's lack of aesthetic appeal.]
Stokoe, W. C., Jr. "The Double Problem of Sir Degaré." PMLA 70 (1955), 518-34.
[Argues that there are two distinct versions of the poem.]
--- . "The Work of the Redacters of Sir Launfal, Richard Coeur de Lion, and Sir Degaré." Ph. D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1946.