Five Favourite Middle English Romances

It’s the beginning of April, which means that the medieval community is taking some time to focus on our love of old languages. My favourite old language is Middle English, with all its quirks and funny letters, so I thought I’d take the time to share five of my favourite Middle English romances with you.

 British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v - The opening lines of Lanval, Sir  Launfal was based on this  lai by Marie  de France.

British Library MS Harley 978, fol. 133v – The opening lines of Lanval, Sir Launfal was based on this lai by Marie de France.

1. Sir Launfal
When you’re the poorest of Arthur’s knights and feeling left out, nothing can cheer you up like finding a naked fairy-lady reclined in a tent in the woods who has an inexplicable but intense crush on you. Launfal’s fortunes turn around when the said lusty fairy-lady Dame Tryamour promises to give him everything he wants as long as he doesn’t tell anyone about her. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) Sir Launfal is an interesting romance for lots of reasons, one of which is that it has a different take on Guinevere than most: she is lusty, spiteful, and petty, and attempts to use Arthur as a tool for her vengeance. There’s also the suspense of whether or not Launfal will be saved from his inevitable mistake, the friendship of the knights who try to boost his spirits, and the question of how Arthur can get out of the bind Guinevere puts him in. Finally, there is a parade of beautiful and ethereal maidens – who could ask for anything more? Like most of the romances in this list, you can read Sir Launfal online, thanks to the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series.

'The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle' -  also known as , 'Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady'

‘The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’ – also known as , ‘Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady’

2. The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell
Sometimes you wander through the woods and stumble upon beautiful lusty maidens, and sometimes you stumble upon hideous lusty maidens (every day is an adventure in Middle English romance!). In this story, Arthur is once again in a bind: he finds his life threatened by an ogre of a man, unless he can figure out what women really want – naturally, the villain assumes this is an impossible task for any man. Trying to figure out what to do, Arthur is saved by (you guessed it!) a hideous maiden named Dame Ragnell who promises to tell him the secret if Arthur will marry her to Gawain. Arthur promises, and Ragnell reveals that what women want most is “To have the rewlle of the manlyest men” (“To rule over the manliest men”, l.470). Gawain marries Ragnell without a hint of protest, and on their wedding night she reveals herself to be a beautiful maiden under a spell. Gawain must choose if he wants her to be beautiful by day (and therefore a great trophy wife) or beautiful by night (to satisfy his desire). What will he choose? You can read The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell for yourself, or you can cut to the chase and read my own take on why Gawain is so very awesome.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Arthur's Tomb: The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere (1860).

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Arthur’s Tomb: The Last Meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere (1860).

3. The Stanzaic Morte Arthur
There are many different versions of Arthur’s story, but this is one of my favourites, and apparently, one of Thomas Malory’s, too. This version focuses on the end of Camelot and has a heavy emphasis on Lancelot and Guinevere. The Middle English is pretty friendly to read, and flows nicely with a quick pace that makes you want to keep reading to find out what happens next (even though you probably already know what happens next). Unlike in some of the other romances in this list, all of the familiar knights are present: Ector, Bors, Lionel, Agravaine, and, of course, Gawain. Even after reading the story a million times, The Stanzaic Morte Arthur makes it hard not to be moved when you come to the end of your favourite characters.

Yvain unwittingly battles Gawain, from Chrétien's Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (Wikipedia - Public Domain)

Yvain unwittingly battles Gawain, from Chrétien’s Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (Wikipedia – Public Domain)

4. Ywain and Gawain
Turns out that a knight’s best friend isn’t his horse – it’s his lion. When it comes to medieval romances, Ywain and Gawain pulls out all the stops. Where else can you find a gateway to a magical realm which involves pouring water over a giant emerald, which summons a storm, and then a tree full of birds, and then an angry knight? Ywain hears about this magical realm and immediately heads for the emerald to avenge his friend (who was unhorsed by said angry knight). Adventure ensues, including a portcullis that cuts Ywain’s horse in half; a magical and awesomely crafty handmaiden (Lunet); invisibility and invulnerability rings; a broken promise; madness; saving a lion; having a lion for a sidekick; and living happily ever after. It’s seriously epic, and they should probably make a movie about it. Ywain and Gawain is long, but worth it, if only for the amazing Lassie-like lion.

Gawain and the Green Knight by John Howe.

Gawain and the Green Knight by John Howe.

5. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
You probably saw this coming a mile away, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is my favourite Middle English romance by far. I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s New Year’s Day at Arthur’s court when a big, green man arrives and challenges any knight who’s brave enough to a contest: the knight can cut off the green man’s head now, and the green man will cut off the knight’s head in one year. Gawain steps up and cuts off the green man’s head, but the court looks on in astonishment (naturally) when the green man picks up his head and rides away. Gawain knows that he’s not going to survive his end of the contest, but the next year her rides out to meet his fate anyway, encountering a strange castle with an enticing lady and a generous host at the eleventh hour. The lady of the castle offers Gawain a scarf that will save his life, but he will be breaking his promise to his host if he takes it. What does the world’s greatest knight do? I love this poem because it is so brilliantly evocative: every detail is described lovingly, from the feast, to Gawain’s armour, to his favourite horse, Gringolet. The poet keeps up a good pace while taking his time to allow for beautiful description. And, of course, you fall in love with the good-hearted and conflicted Gawain as you go. If you love medieval stories, read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English if you can, but the next best thing is J.R.R. Tolkien’s faithful and beautiful translation.

For more great Middle English works, check out the TEAMS Middle English Text Series website, where you can find the texts themselves, and some other great projects. Whichever old language you prefer, take some time this April to celebrate it.

~ Danièle Cybulskie

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