Introduction to Otuel a Knight
OTUEL A KNIGHT, INTRODUCTION: FOOTNOTES
1 For Otuel a Knight, see DIMEV 1784; NIMEV 1103; and Smyser, “Charlemagne Legends,” pp. 92, 264. The romance in couplets has 1746 lines, counting an eight-line lacuna; lines 121–28 are missing due to damage to the manuscript.
2 For studies on the Auchinleck manuscript, see Calkin, Saracens and the Making of English Identity; Connolly and Edwards, “Evidence for the History”; and Fein, New Perspectives.
3 Belisant’s attraction to Otinel is evident in Otinel, lines 361–63, 397–98, 437–41, and 564–86.
Of the surviving Middle English romances featuring the Saracen Otuel, Otuel a Knight is the oldest. It is also the only one written in couplets rather than tail-rhyme stanzas.1 Its sole manuscript witness is the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1; c. 1330–40), fols. 268ra–77vb, where it is immediately preceded by Roland and Vernagu.2 For a long time Otuel a Knight had only one edition — Sidney J. H. Herrtage’s 1882 The English Charlemagne Romances. Part VI — where it is edited in the same volume as Roland and Vernagu. A second edition appeared in 2003 when the facsimile of the Auchinleck manuscript, edited by David Burnley and Alison Wiggins, was made available online. Accompanying the full-color digital images of the scribal copies of both Roland and Vernagu and Otuel a Knight are accurate transcriptions that provide some degree of emendation, but without any editorial punctuation, glossary, or commentary.
Like all of the Middle English versions of the French Otinel, Otuel a Knight tells the story of the Saracen knight Otuel who battles Roland on behalf of the Emperor Garcy and is miraculously converted to Christianity during the duel. After Otuel’s conversion, he is incorporated into Charlemagne’s court and fights on his behalf against Garcy. The three Otuel romances — Otuel a Knight, Otuel and Roland, and Duke Roland and Sir Otuel of Spain — are frequently treated by critics as a single poem because each contains portions of the same essential plot, with Otuel and Roland extended to include Ganelon’s treason and Roland’s fall at Roncevaux. In fact, the Otuel romances are distinct poems, with differences in rhyme scheme, stanza form, and treatments of the plot details. To illustrate the distinctions, the introduction to each poem focuses on four scenes. How these scenes are adapted contributes to the general tone of each poem.
The first scene comes directly before Otuel and Roland’s duel. Otuel has to borrow armor from Charlemagne, who asks his daughter Belesent to arm the young knight. She is romantically attracted to him. The second scene occurs as Roland and Oliver flee the Saracens and encounter Otuel riding with his host to meet them. In each version, Otuel scolds Roland and Oliver for fleeing, but the poets have him express a different reprimand in each version, some harsher than the others. The third scene, like the first one, deals with a potential love interest. When Ogier is injured in battle, Clarel sends him to his paramour for healing; in the meeting between Ogier and Enfamy, there may be a suggestion of desire or the encounter may remain innocent. The fourth scene is Otuel and Clarel’s duel: as Otuel and Clarel fight, Otuel slices off Clarel’s cheek, leaving his teeth exposed; Otuel always mocks Clarel’s injury, but the nature of the joke correlates to the tone set by the other three scenes. Here we will discuss the casting of the four scenes in Otuel a Knight, using the French Otinel as the standard for comparison.
Overall, the Otuel a Knight poet offers a sanitized version of the narrative: sexual desire between Otuel and Belesent is never specified or hinted at, and Otuel’s reprimand of Roland and Oliver lacks the sarcastic bite it carries in the other versions. As a result of these choices, Otuel a Knight offers a straightforward celebration of Christians and condemnation of Saracens. Most notably, Belesent is virtually absent in Otuel a Knight; the poet seems to have decided either to eliminate scenes in which she was featured, such as the arming scene, or to minimize her role. In the French Otinel, a sexual tension between Belisant and the still-unconverted Saracen is palpable, lending credence to Belisant’s enthusiastic acceptance of Otinel as her betrothed after his conversion.3 Also removed is Belesent’s eager acceptance of the marriage arrangement. Instead, the marriage is simply discussed by Charlemagne and Otuel, with Charlemagne praising Otuel’s decision to defer his nuptials:
Here, Otuel is depicted as the perfect Christian convert, and he seems almost indifferent to Belesent and marriage until he has proven himself in battle against the Saracens. The poet similarly removes mention of Belesent later in the poem, when the Christian host stages its siege of Ataly. In the French Otinel, Belisant is in attendance during the siege and involved in the care of knights in the camp (Otinel, lines 1240–47). No such references appear in Otuel a Knight. Belesent is not even mentioned again.
The author of this romance likewise removes any references to Saracen women. In the French source, the injured Ogier is taken to Clarel’s lover for care, and Alfamie and her maidservants disarm and disrobe Ogier so that they can tend his wounds. Alfamie questions Ogier about his identity before she heals him (Otinel, lines 972–87). This scene of conversation and care is omitted in Otuel a Knight, replaced by a focus on Ogier’s escape from imprisonment, particularly his spectacular performance in fighting off jailers and his clever scheme to convince the porter to open the gate.
Otuel a Knight tends to minimize the sarcastic tone that Otinel uses in the French source. The joke disappears from the scene in which Otuel comes to save Roland and Oliver, as Otuel simply encourages Roland and Oliver to turn back toward the battle:
A rallying cry has replaced the French source’s sarcastic jab. The sharp-tongued, swaggering Otuel who arrived in Charlemagne’s court at the beginning of the romance is now subdued and replaced by a more mundane, less imaginative killer of Saracens.
When Otuel faces Clarel in a duel near the end of the romance, a glimmer of his acerbic wit surfaces, though once again the poet changes the scene to remove any reference to women or lovemaking. In Otinel, when Otinel slices off Clarel’s cheek, he sarcastically taunts Clarel that he is now so ugly his paramour will not want to have anything to do with him (Otinel, lines 1455–56). When this moment is translated in Otuel a Knight, Otuel comments on Clarel’s strength and jokes twice about his exposed teeth:
Otuel’s comment is still mocking, but it omits mention of Clarel’s love relationship. As is his wont, the Otuel a Knight poet prefers to depict societies, Christian and Saracen, where women are marginal and have negligible roles in anything important.
Otuel a Knight is an earnest if slightly clumsy Middle English retelling of the French source. The poet who composed this version makes changes to characters’ dialogue, broadly adapts or omits scenes, and shifts the narrative focus to a straightforward report of the events in the romance. He seems reluctant to include anything that might suggest that a Christian could feel unseemly desires or behave in a cowardly manner, focusing instead on glorifying Christians and promoting conversion efforts.
Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1 (Auchinleck MS), fols. 268ra–77vb.
Pearsall, Derek, and I. C. Cunningham, eds. The Auchinleck Manuscript: National Library of Scotland Advocates’ MS. 19.2.1. London: Scolar Press, 1979.
Burnley, David, and Alison Wiggins, eds. The Auchinleck Manuscript. National Library of Scotland, 2003. Online at https://auchinleck.nls.uk.
PREVIOUS EDITIONS (IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER):
Otuel. In The English Charlemagne Romances. Part VI. Ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage. EETS e.s. 39. London: Oxford University Press, 1882. Rpt. 1969. Pp. 65–116.
Otuel a Kniȝt. In The Auchinleck Manuscript. Ed. David Burnley and Alison Wiggins. National Library of Scotland, 2003. Online at https://auchinleck.nls.uk.
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