Medieval Romance

Sir Isumbras

Early-fourteenth century, Middle English, Cambridge University Library, Lincoln Cathedral Library, British Library.

In the nick of time, Sir Isumbras's sons miraculously appear. One is riding a lion, another a leopard and the third a unicorn.

'I think a good indicator that you're on the right track is if you can explain the most inexplicable part of whatever it is you're trying to explain,' said Miranda.

'And what is the most inexplicable part of Sir Isumbras, then?' asked Quintin.

'The bit near the end when his three sons come riding into battle upon the animals that had previously abducted them many years before. A lion, a leopard and a unicorn. Up until then, the story has had at least a semblance of reality about it.'

'If you exclude the divine message given to Sir Isumbras from a talking bird,' remarked Quintin.

'Well, I do,' replied Miranda. 'Sir Isumbras is divinely instructed that he must choose between wealth now, or in his old age.'

'By a bird.'

'By a songbird. As soon as he chooses to have wealth in his old age, his hounds run off, his horse collapses beneath him, his manor burns to the ground, his farm animals are all stolen and all that's left to him are his wife and three children. So he decides to travel to the Holy Land to do penance for the sin of pride, but loses two of his sons to wild animals as he crosses a river...'

'A lion and a leopard.'

'...and then his wife is purchased by a sultan who packs her off to the east to rule as his queen. Sir Isumbras is left alone with his remaining son until the money he received for his wife is taken away by an eagle, then the boy is carried off by a unicorn and Sir Isumbras is left penniless and alone. The Wheel of Fortune has reached, for him, its lowest depths.

'Sir Isumbras then comes upon a smithy, spends seven years as a blacksmith's apprentice, makes a suit of armour for himself, joins a Christian army, kills the sultan who bought his wife, refuses to describe himself as anything other than a blacksmith to the king who commands the Christian forces and who wishes to reward Sir Isumbras for killing the sultan, spends another seven years as a beggar in the Holy Land and then arrives at last at the castle where his wife is living as the new ruler of the land that the sultan ruled over. Sir Isumbras goes to live in her castle...'

'But neither recognises the other,' interrupted Quintin. 'Isn't this the most inexplicable thing?'

'Well, let's assume they've both aged quite a lot.'

'Only fourteen years.'

'Well, exactly. She recognises the gold though, the gold that Sir Isumbras was given in exchange for her. When Sir Isumbras finds this gold again high in an eagle's nest he carries it to his room in the castle, she is told about it, recognises it, and Sir Isumbras is summoned to explain. At last Sir Isumbras and his wife recognise and acknowledge one another, partly through a pair of half-rings that they are able to match, and they are married once again.

'But by forcing Christianity upon the kingdom, its people rebel against Sir Isumbras and he faces a heathen army singlehandedly. But then, in the nick of time, his sons miraculously appear. One is riding a lion, another a leopard and the third a unicorn. Completely unnecessary, you would have thought. Why not introduce them as proper people? Unless...'

'Unless what?'

'Unless the whole thing is intended figuratively. Look – what is the most extreme form of the Wheel of Fortune turning a complete circle? In a society that believes in reincarnation, I mean?'

'From life to death and back to life again.'

'Exactly. So if these stories derive from these times, or wish to transmit this meaning to a Christian culture, they will do so in a figurative way and we must expect to have to use a little imagination. Step back a little from the story and give it in a nutshell.

'Sir Isumbras loses everything he has...'

'...and begins a new life as a blacksmith's apprentice,' interrupted Miranda, in agreement. 'His sons are taken by animals and his wife begins a new life as a queen in the east. So when Sir Isumbras meets his wife again, understandably they do not recognise one another – just as in the Breton lai Guigemar where a lady heals Guigemar of his wound when he travels to her lying on a bed in a black boat with candles at its prow, then travels in an identical boat back to Brittany following a similar return journey by Guigemar, where she is the only one who can untie the knot in his shirt, although they do not recognise one another at first. Sir Isumbras and his wife recognise one another only when they compare the two halves of the rings they are carrying. He is a poor beggar, she is a queen. But their children have been taken by animals. What happens to the baby Octavian in the romance Octavian when he is taken by a lioness?'

'The lioness suckles him, as though he is her cub.'

'Well exactly. He is her cub! This is the meaning. In all these stories where a lady faces death and is then banished or a family separated or a boy grows up not knowing where he came from – which includes a large proportion of these medieval romances if you think about it – they are all derived from stories intended to signify the revolution of the great wheel. After crossing a river that separates their old lives from the new, Sir Isumbras's sons became a lion and a leopard.'

'And his youngest son later becomes a unicorn.'

Well, I know. But what do you expect from medieval romance? Realism?'

Story recounted from: Hudson, Harriet, 1996, second edition 2006. Four Middle English Romances, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Medieval Institute Publications. The Middle English text of SIR ISUMBRAS from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge MS 175, with missing lines supplied from British Library MS Cotton Caligula A.ii.

See for yourself

Sir Isumbras – TEAMS Middle English texts

Sir Isumbras – Wikipedia

Sir Isumbras at the Ford – A Victorian painting by John Everett Millais. Wikipedia

Chivalric Romance – Wikipedia

Medieval Institute Publications – Harriet Hudson (Ed), Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour, Second Edition. TEAMS Middle English texts

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