Hidden origins in literature and legend
'This is just another facet of that literary motif found everywhere in medieval Arthurian legend and medieval romance,' said Quintin. 'Disguise. Exchange of identity. The concealment of identity. It's endemic!'
'Origins that are hidden or unknown,' said Miranda, thoughtfully. 'It is slightly different, though.'
'In what way?'
'Well, when the Fair Unknown arrives at King Arthur's court and is asked his name, he genuinely doesn't know what it is. When the maiden Le Freine, in a Breton lai, asks the nun who has been bringing her up who her true parents are, she does so because she genuinely doesn't know. She isn't concealing her identity or assuming a disguise. When the little boy Arthur draws the sword from the stone, he genuinely doesn't know that he is the son of King Uther Pendragon. Sir Degaré has no idea who his mother is, in another Middle English Breton lai, which is why he unknowingly puts himself in danger of marrying her.'
'Well, then, there are links with Dionysian drama in that case – those plays that were put on in Athens at the Festival of Dionysus, by playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides,' said Quintin. 'Because that is exactly what Oedipus does when he doesn't know where he really came from. Like many heros of medieval romance, he is brought up at a royal court, where his true origins are unknown. And he actually does marry his mother.'
'And there are other instances of this in Ancient Athenian drama,' Quintin continued. 'In Euripides play Ion, a gentleman arrives at the temple of Apollo in Greece with no inkling that the boy sweeping the temple precinct is his son; the boy was wafted there as a baby by Apollo, we are told. And in Euripides' Hippolytus, Theseus's son is taken to a foreign land at the very end by the goddess Artemis, who changes his features and his age, and gives him a new name '
'Medieval romance uses very similar plots,' said Miranda. 'When Christabel is sent away in a boat without rudder or oar with her new-born baby son, and a griffin snatches her child away and carries him across the sea to Israel, he is brought up by the king there as his own son. And he very nearly marries his own mother! And in another romance, the knight Sir Isumbras starts a new life as a blacksmith's apprentice.'
'Havelok the Dane was a king's son,' said Quintin, 'but he worked as a kitchin scullion in Lincoln Castle until a birthmark betrayed his royal status to everyone.'
'Yes. Rather like the Apis bull, I suppose.'
'Or the Dalai Lama.'
'Well, it was on his shoulder I think. Or his back.'
'The Icelandic saga-writers get in on the act with characteristic humour,' said Miranda. 'A hero in one of their legendary sagas is fated to live for three hundred years, and goes off at one point in the story to live in a forest, where he wears a suit of tree bark and claims not to remember much of his previous existance. They call him Barkman.'