Guy of Warwick

Guy of Warwick
(ca. 1300)
   Guy of Warwick is a ROMANCE in MIDDLE ENGLISH verse, first composed very early in the 14th century. It is one of a group of romances (including HAVELOK, BEVIS OF HAMPTON, and KING HORN) associated with what was called the “Matter of England,” because of its English setting and origins. But the legend is based ultimately on an Anglo-Norman French source,Gui de Warewic (ca. 1240). The English text survives in several versions, the oldest of which is the version in the Auchinleck manuscript. In its complete form, the romance runs to some 12,000 lines. The sprawling legend of Sir Guy, involving his winning of the earl of Warwick’s daughter, his saving England from the Danes by defeating the giant Colbrand, and his saintly last days, was extremely popular (judging from the number of manuscripts and early printed versions of the story), and remained popular even into the 19th century.
   Most modern readers find the poem to be rambling and lacking in unity. One of the reasons for this is that the text as preserved in the Auchinleck manuscript is in fact a compilation of what were probably originally three separate romances: The first, in about 7,000 lines written in octosyllabic (eight-syllable) couplets, concerns Guy’s feats of chivalry undertaken to win his beloved Felice. The second, in some 3,500 lines composed in TAILRHYME stanzas, deals with Guy’s forsaking worldly chivalry to become a soldier of Christ. The final section, concerning the romantic adventures of Guy’s son Reinbrun, includes about 1,500 lines, also in tail-rhyme stanzas.
   In part 1, Guy is introduced as the son of Siward, the steward of Earl Rohand ofWarwick.Guy, a lowly cupbearer, is in love with the earl’s daughter Felice, but the lady is the traditional haughty heroine of the COURTLY LOVE tradition, and spurns Guy three times because of his low status and his lack of knightly honor. Motivated to become the world’s greatest knight in order to win his love, Guy spends seven years abroad, making a name for himself. He fights in a tournament for the daughter of the emperor of Germany, whom he also saves. He later breaks the emperor’s siege of Duke Segwin. He travels to Constantinople, where he saves Emperor Ernis from the Saracens and slays the sultan.He rescues Lady Ozelle from being married against her will, and helps Sir Tyrry to win her hand, as well as her kingdom. In each case, Sir Guy hears of some wrong that needs righting, and steps in to see that justice is done.When he finally returns to England, he battles a dragon and wins the gratitude of King ATHELSTAN, as well as the hand of his beloved Fenice.
   Thus the first section of Guy of Warwick is essentially a self-contained chivalric romance in itself. Part 2, however, owes as much to the SAINT’S LIFE genre as it does to romance. After a mere 50 days of marriage to Fenice, Guy leaves her, and their unborn child, to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, hoping to atone for the sins he committed on his previous adventures. He becomes the soldier of God and fights a number of battles against the enemies of God and of the right, appearing as the answer to a prayer to fight for his friend Sir Tyrry, a battle in which he is described as an angel. When he returns to England this time, it is in disguise as a beggar. King Athelstan, whose kingdom is threatened by the Danes and their champion, an African giant named Colbrond, prays for a savior, and in response is told in a dream where to find a beggar who will save England—the disguised Guy. In the ensuing battle, Sir Guy turns down a bribe, overcomes the giant, and saves England from the Danes. Afterward, he goes off to live in a hermitage. Here, he is fed by Fenice, who does not recognize him until he reveals himself to her by sending her his ring shortly before he dies. After Guy’s death, there are conventional signs of sainthood, such as the odor of sanctity from his body, and the establishment of a church on the site of his death. If the first part of the text was a typical courtly romance, the second suggests that saintliness is not the sole province of those in religious orders, and that knighthood itself may be a religious calling.
   The third part of the text implies that the chivalric tradition continues in new generations. This brief tail-rhyme romance concerning Sir Guy’s son Reinbrun follows the boy through a kidnapping by Russian pirates at the age of seven and a shipwreck on the shores of Africa, where he is given to the daughter of King Argus. Sir Guy’s own teacher, Sir Harrad, comes in search of Reinbrun, but is imprisoned by King Argus. Harrad is made to do battle against King Argus’s warriors.When he discovers that the one knight he cannot defeat is Reinbrun himself, the two are reunited and travel back to England.
   The romance of Guy ofWarwick attained a huge popularity, probably because of the patriotic overtones of Guy’s fight with the giant Colbrond and his association with Athelstan. John LYDGATE wrote a version of the legend (ca. 1450), and it was accepted as genuine by chroniclers and historians for centuries. In the Renaissance Michael Drayton told the story of Sir Guy’s battle with Colbrand in his Poly-Olbion.
   ■ Dannenbaum, Susan C. “Guy of Warwick and the Question of Exemplary Romance,” Genre 17 (1984): 351–374.
   ■ Mehl, Dieter. Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968.
   ■ Richmond, Velma B. The Legend of Guy of Warwick. New York: Garland, 1996.
   ■ Wiggins, Alison, ed. Stanzaic Guy of Warwick. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004.
   ■ Zupitza, J., ed. The Romance of Guy of Warwick: The Second or 15th-Century Version. Edited from Cambridge University Library ms. ff. 2.38. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press, 1966.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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