concealed identity artwork

Elizabeth Line


Concealed identity in literature and legend

This is the fast one,' said Miranda. 'Not many stops on it. You can shoot from one side of the network to the other on this one in no time.'

'Well, how many more stops on this theme do you need?' asked Quintin. 'It's really just disguise all over again, after all. And the Circle Line mops up loads more of these as well.'

'There is an awful lot of it to choose from, I agree. But there are some interesting ones here,' enthused Miranda. 'The medieval Arthurian legend of Merlin has him as a shape-shifter. He pops up here and there as a child, an old man, a warrior and a sage. And the line passes through Paddington, so we get Lancelot forever concealing his identity as well.'

'Well,' said Quintin, 'Norse mythology can boast many stories in which the gods conceal their identity. It was a stock-in-trade of Odin, after all. Loki became a salmon once. And at another time, a horse.'

'One of the Middle English Breton lais,' said Miranda, 'includes a father who has no idea that he is speaking to his son because the boy's mother has concealed his identity. And the boy's mother, Egaré, is really Emaré, who was sent off in a rudderless boat before washing up on a beach and concealing her own identity. Another Middle  English Breton lai has a knight conceal his identity in order to look at a beautiful lady.

'Later in the story he disguises himself as a monk as well,' said Quintin.

'Just like in the Dionysian plays of ancient Athens, then,' said Miranda. 'The actors in Aristophanes play Festival-time conceal their identities so frequently, in the context of the plot as well as literally, that it is hard to keep count. And in Homer's epic Odyssey, the goddess Athene appears before people many times in the shape of someone else. She even disguises Odysseus so that he can enter his palace unrecognised.'

'Howling the Spectres flee: they take refuge in Human lineaments,' intoned Quintin, reciting from William Blake's poem Milton.


Take a quick tour

The Elizabeth Line passes through a succession of places in time and location where the concealment of identity is to be found in literature, legend or mythology. Click or tap on the circles and tunnel markers to dive deeper into the discoveries that Quintin and Miranda have made. Alternatively, click or tap on the large turquoise button for a quick journey through the summaries. Click or tap on any summary to dive deeper.

Concealment of Identity

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Scandinavian Mythology

Iceland: The Poetic Edda

13th century, Old Norse, Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies, Reykjavik.

'You’ll exchange appearances...'

Scandinavian Mythology

Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda

13th century, Icelandic: numerous copies in Iceland, Copenhagen.

'During the day he often changed himself into a salmon and hid in a place called Franang's Falls.'

Ancient Athenian Drama

Aristophanes: Thesmophoriazousai (Festival Time)

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

But it doesn't include the chorus, who are all men dressed up as women.

Ancient Greek Mythology

Homer's Odyssey

8th century BC, Ancient Greek.

Athene waved her magic wand and Odysseus became an old man, dresed in rags.

Ancient Athenian Drama

Euripides: Electra

5th century BC, Ancient Greek.

Electra stands talking to a man she still believes to be a stranger and yet he is, at the same time, someone who is very close to her heart.

Middle English Breton Lais

The Tale of Emaré

14th century, Middle English: British Library.

The king said laughingly to the boy: 'Sweet son, what is your name?'

'Lord,' he said, 'it is Segramour.'

Immediately, the king’s humour changed to one of great sadness, for this name reminded him of his dead son.

Middle English Breton Lais

The Erle of Tolous

14th century Middle English; four manuscript copies, in Oxford, Cambridge and the library of Lincoln Cathedral.

In order to disguise himself, the earl assumed the outfit of a poor hermit, although he was well able to afford some better clothes!

Medieval Romance


13th century, Old French: 14th century Middle English versions at Cambridge University Library, Lincoln Cathedral Library, British Library.

Clement's wife was delighted to see her husband, asked all his news and how he had come across the child.

'He shall be my own child,' she said, and kissed the infant many times.

Medieval Romance

King Horn

13th century Middle English, three manuscripts dating to the 13th and 14th century, London, Cambridge.

'Cutberd is my name,' said Horn.

English Poetry

William Blake: The Prophetic works

1757-1827, English poet, artist and engraver. London, England.

'Or they create the Lion & Tyger in compassionate thunderings: howling the Spectres flee: they take refuge in Human lineaments.'

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Of Arthour and of Merlin

14th century Middle English. National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript; Lincoln's Inn Library, Hale MS 150.

At once, the beggar changed his appearance and it was clear that it was indeed Merlin.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Old French pre-Vulgate Lancelot

13th century, Old French.

Sir Gawain tracks Galehot and Sir Lancelot down to a Lost Island, and in attempting to storm the only bridge onto this island, is met by Sir Lancelot wearing Galehot’s arms.

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Of Arthour and of Merlin

14th century Middle English. National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript; Lincoln's Inn Library, Hale MS 150.

'You shall not ask us our names, nor who we are, nor question any identity we may give you.'

Medieval Arthurian legend

Of Arthour and of Merlin

14th century Middle English. National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript; Lincoln's Inn Library, Hale MS 150.

'I’ve no idea who any of those three were,' said Gawain.

'All three were one. It was Merlin,' said Earl Do.

Norse mythology Classical mythology and drama Breton lais Medieval Romance English poetry Arthurian legend Norse mythology Norse mythology Aristophanes Homer Euripides Middle English Breton lais Middle English Breton lais Medieval Romance Medieval Romance William Blake Arthurian legend Arthurian legend Arthurian legend Arthurian legend