Sir Degaré

Sir Degaré

"Sir Degaré" (from Old English "Diggory", and is probably from French "égaré" > "strayed, lost") is an anonymous Middle English narrative poem [] , written in the tradition of the Breton lai. It explores certain themes in the story of Orpheus by way of Celtic mythology.

History and Manuscripts

The poem is dated to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century and extant in six manuscripts. Some scholars claim the poem to be based upon a lost Breton lai, Lai d'Esgaré. It was introduced into the English culture via the Old French Breton "lais" of poets like Marie de France. The narrative builds the Greek myth of Orpheus on elements from Celtic mythology and folklore concerning fairies.

The Auchinleck MS. is accepted among scholars as containing the earliest example of the poem in Middle English. The poem featured within the manuscript consists of 1065 lines and is incomplete. [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)]

ynopsis & Commentary

A 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, [18 See Laura Hibbard Loomis, p. 302.] 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. [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.] 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; [20 See Colopy, p. 35.] 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."

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." [21 Colopy, pp. 32-33. The "Green Knight" refers to the villain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.] 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.

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." [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.]



*"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.]
*Additional "MS 27879 (Percy Folio)" in the British Library. [Dated 1650; Sir Degaré (folio 183b-189a) consists of 900 lines including an ending.]
*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.

ee also

*"Sir Orfeo"

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