St John's Wood

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Thomas Chestre: The Fair Unknown

14th century, Middle English, British Museum, Lambeth Palace Library London, Bodleian Library Oxford, Biblioteca Nazionale Naples.

The young knight’s heart filled with wonder and awe as he watched a snake emerging, a snake with a woman’s face.

As the Fair Unknown sat dejectedly in the cathedral, bereft of all happiness and not knowing what to do, a window appeared magically in a stone wall. The young knight’s heart filled with wonder and awe as he watched a snake emerging, a snake with a woman’s face. A worme ther ganne oute-pas with a womanes face.

'I am not old, but very young,' she said, enigmatically. Yonge Y am and nothinge olde. Hir body and hir wyngis [wings] shone in all thynchis [things] – Her body, he could see now, had wings, and everything about her shone like enamel, or gold. She was huge, and the Fair Unknown broke into a cold sweat as she emerged from the stone. Transfixed by the sight of her, his heart pounded inside his chest as though it would burst. She moved towards him, and before he knew it, she had coiled herself around his body and was kissing him intimately on the mouth.

And with this show of affection, her tail and wings fell away and before him stood such a beautiful woman that he had never seen such beauty in his entire life before. She was completely naked and the Fair Unknown found himself a little embarrassed.

‘Gentle knight,’ she said. ‘God has answered your prayers and granted that you should kill my foes! Thowe haste slayne nowthe two clerkys kowthe, that wroughten by the fende. – You have slain two churchmen who did the work of the devil. By the power of their false arguments, untrue creeds and evil dogma, they have done a great deal of harm. Through enchantment, they turned me into a snake to live in woe, until I should kiss Sir Gawain, that doughty knight, or one of his kin.

Story fragment recounted from: Mills, M, 1969. Lybeaus Desconus, from the Medieval manuscripts Lambeth Palace MS 306 and British Museum MS Cotton Caligula A.ii. Published for the Early English Text Society by Oxford University Press.

See for yourself

Lybeaus Desconus – Eve Salisbury and James Weldon (Eds), TEAMS Middle English text with an introduction

Gingalain – Wikipedia

Libeaus Desconus – Wikipedia

Complete text of two 15th century Middle English manuscript copies of Thomas Chestre's 14th century Lybeaus Desconus, edited by M Mills, 1969, available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press

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