Ancient Greek Mythology and Middle English Breton Lais

Odysseus, Constance, and Sir Degaré

8th century BC, Ancient Greek ¦ 14th century, Middle English

In all these stories there is a sense that a person is returning to a place where time has not moved on properly.

'The thing which strikes me most about Chaucer's tale from the Man of Law,’ said Miranda, ‘is how ludicrous it is.'

'Well, the same can be said for Homer's Odyssey,' responded Quintin. 'And I don’t mean the voyage that Odysseus makes around a sea full of giants and goddesses. That part is quite fun. But he is trapped in this fantastic ocean for nine long years after the fall of Troy, and the suitors at his palace on Ithaca are still living it up at the expense of his estate, waiting for his wife Penelope to make up her mind about marrying one of them. Are they going to spend their whole lives hanging around like idiots? I would have thought that three long years would have been stretching the limits of credulity a bit. But nine!’

‘Well, it's the same with Chaucer’s story of Constance,’ replied Miranda. ‘Twice she is thrown into a small boat alone and set adrift on an ocean, and each time she behaves on her arrival on a distant shore as though she has forgotten everything that has ever happened to her. She doesn't know who she is. And the second time, ten years after her traumatic departure from Syria, finding herself in the middle of the sea once again, she comes across another vessel carrying a friend of her father’s who is returning from business that happened all those years ago. It is a jolt, a temporal dislocation. One would have expected things to have moved on a bit. And when she's taken back to Rome, she makes no attempt to tell anyone who she is, which seems quite ludicrous.'

‘It's the same in the Medieval romance of Sir Degaré,’ said Quintin. ‘The hero's mother is being jousted for by suitors – each has to joust with her father in order to gain her hand in marriage. But alone in a forest she conceives a baby illicitly and abandons it at birth. The baby escapes this life-threatening experience, however, and the little boy is brought up elsewhere and knows nothing of his real mother. But then, when he is a young man of twenty, Sir Degaré journeys to a city where his mother is being jousted for by suitors. Still! It only requires one suitor to defeat her father in combat and she will have to marry him. And in victory Sir Degaré finds that the woman he has just won in combat is his own mother.’

‘Like Oedipus.’

‘But after twenty years? She must be almost nearing the end of child-bearing age. Why are suitors still interested? Again, this same sense that time should have moved on but it hasn't. As though the main character is returning to the past.’

‘But these authors weren't fools.’

‘No,’ said Quintin. 'Certainly not.'

‘So I guess these temporal dislocations must have been written into the story on purpose,’ said Miranda. 'Maybe after journeying across an ocean in a boat of the dead, one can return to a time and a place in which one has already lived, although in a different body.

Story of Odysseus's return to Ithaca in: Shewring, Walter, with an introduction by Kirk, G. S., 1980, reprinted 2008. Homer: The Odyssey. Translated from ancient Greek with an introduction. Oxford University Press.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Man of Law recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Canterbury Tales. The Man of Law's Tale. written c. 1390.

Story of Sir Degaré recounted from: Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Eds), 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. The Middle English text of SIR DEGARÉ from National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript, a missing ending provided by Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson Poetry 34.

See for yourself

Sir Degaré – TEAMS Medieval text, Middle English with an introduction.

Harvard University's Geoffrey Chaucer website - Text and translations

Homer: The Odyssey – English translation, Internet Classics Archive

Breton lai – Wikipedia

Sir Degaré – Wikipedia

The Canterbury Tales - Wikipedia

The Man of Law's Tale - Wikipedia

Homer – Wikipedia

Odysseus – Wikipedia

The Odyssey – Wikipedia

Medieval Institute Publications – Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Eds), 1995. The Middle English Breton Lays. TEAMS Middle English texts

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