Irish Mythology, Breton Lais and Medieval Romance

Tuatha de Danaan, Guigemar and Generydes

Ancient Irish legend | 12th century Old French | 14th century, Middle English: Trinity College, Cambridge.

'The deer has led you here, the one you have been chasing all day. He has guided you here.’

Early the next morning, Queen Serene made her departure and the forester happily went with her. They travelled for many days until they came within sight of the realm of Thrace and headed straight for it. Soon they came to a fair and populous city, through which ran a great river where ships were loading and unloading all manner of fine things; and as the story reminds us, Auferius was the governor there and here he had determined to live for a while. Queen Serene found lodgings beside the river and when she learned that Auferius had recently arrived in the city, God knows, she was delighted! She went one day to take the air, began to walk along the riverbank and came to a bridge where she saw, as my source tells me, three washerwomen trying their hardest to wash a shirt.

‘What are you doing, fair sisters?’ she asked them.

‘I wish we knew!’ replied one of them. ‘It is marvellous work, I can tell you! We are washing a shirt and will be forever, I reckon. We’ve been at it for the last two years and still cannot get the stains out. They call us useless, although we have been washerwomen for many years.’

‘Show me the shirt,’ said Queen Serene.

She took the item of clothing, washed it once and rinsed it so clean that the spots and stains were completely gone. When she had finished, she gave the shirt to the washerwomen and went back to her lodgings. The washerwomen were astounded; they went home and when it was dry, they brought it to Auferius. He was in a beautiful castle, and when he saw the shirt so clean and spotless, he froze and a shiver passed over him as he remembered what had happened a long time ago.

'So here is a medieval romance,' said Quintin, 'that obviously sees its traditions in the Breton lai. The shirt that only Queen Serene can wash the stains out of is like that shirt with the knot that only the lady who healed Guigemar of his deadly wound could untie, and the gloves that only Sir Degare's mother could put on, although in those tales the things were actually required. Here, there is no reason for the stained shirt at all.

'Guigemar and his lady escape seperately from an enchanted castle in a boat of the dead and can't recognise one another when they're back in the real world. But only she can untie the knot in his shirt. Similarly with Sir Degare's gloves, the ones his mother puts into the cradle before saying goodbye to him. Only she can put them on, so he has to offer them to any woman he wishes to marry before marrying her, just in case it's his mother he's about to marry. Which is what happens. Three cheers for the gloves.

'But in this story of Generydes, Queen Serene and a forester arrive in Thrace, where the father of Serene's son Generydes is living, who up until recently has been the King of India but is now living as an earl and steward to the King of Thrace. The forester goes to see his former king who recognises him immediately. No problem. They recongise one another, as you would expect. The forester only has to tell his former king that the lady he's been travelling with from India wishes to see him as well. Where's the problem? The tear-stained shirt that only Queen Serene can wash clean, is completely unnecessary. It's obviously just a story device that the author of the tale felt he ought to include for ornamentation without really understanding why, and certainly without any real need for it.

'Well, it's the same with the deer,' said Miranda. 'Only that's not particularly a Breton motif, it's Irish. It makes an appearance at the beginning of the romance Generydes. A solitary deer appears in Irish legends when the Tuatha de Danaan want to lure one of Fionn's men into their world. They send a deer to guide him to them. Here's the opening scene of Generydes:

One day, the king went hunting in the forest; for when he grew tired of the luxury of the court, he would take four or five hand-picked men with him and go to where the deer were running, leaving all his other knights and courtiers behind. He unleashed the hounds and soon a hart was spotted amongst the trees. The deer jumped to its feet and sped off, the hounds gave chase and the king followed alone and had soon lost contact with all his knights. It was not long before the king found himself all alone. He had lost sight of the deer, his men were a long way behind him now and he had no idea where they were. He rode along in great concern, for the light was beginning to fail and he prayed to God for some remedy to this worrying situation; and as God willed, the king quickly came upon a path that led him straight towards a fine building. God is ready to provide for all good people – the king thought – and with this consolation in mind he rode a little more easily. When he approached the entrance to this building, a maiden appeared and opened the gates for him.

The maiden welcomed King Auferius. She said that she lived in that castle with only two others; an elderly gentleman and her maidservant. They all did their best to make the king welcome. The maiden took him to her chamber, which was delightfully furnished. There was a bed there, enclosed all around with curtains and ingeniously constructed from gold and silk, and upon it was spread a spotlessly clean sheet.

‘Now that you have arrived,’ said the maiden, ‘it is my sole desire to attend to you. This house is yours to command.’ And just as she said this, a deer appeared at the door, foaming at the mouth as though after great exertion. The king was dismayed, for he sensed that this was the same deer he had been chasing all afternoon and he suddenly suspected trickery.

‘Do not be afraid,’ said the maiden, seeing the king’s concern. ‘This is for your benefit. There is no danger. The old man here is one of the seven sages of Rome. My father made him his chief councellor. But he prophesied that the land of Syria would be laid waste by a giant because of the love for me that this giant bears, so on his advice I was sent away to this place in which you find me. And please take what I am about to say in good part, for it is for your own well-being and good fortune. For to come directly to the point, there shall be conceived between us this night, a child who shall grow to achieve wondrous things. He will endure many adventures and escape from them all. This old man can foresee this in every detail. It is for this reason that the deer has led you here, the one you have been chasing all day. He has guided you here and what I tell you is the truth.’

Story fragments recounted from: W Aldis Wright (Ed), 1878. Generydes, a Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, edited from a unique paper MS in Trinity College, Cambridge, for the Early English Text Society. The episode of the deer recounted and retold from lines 36–117. The episode of the washing clean of a tear-stained shirt recounted and retold from lines 1143–1239

See for yourself

Generides – Wikipedia

Chivalric romance – Wikipedia

Complete text of a 15th century Middle English manuscript copy of the probably 14th century Generydes, edited by W Aldis Wright, 1878, available through the Early English Text Society (EETS)

…or direct from Oxford University Press


Circle Line

part of a prehistoric stone circle
circle emblem

Navigate the tunnel