An elephant in the room? This elephant, or this endemic theme, is disguise, the exchange of identity, the concealment of identity and origins hidden. And it may be for this reason that the three Arthurian romances were bound together with the romances of Guy, Bevis, Havelok and Horn, by an astute Georgian bookbinder. These three Arthurian works are part of what is known as the Matter of Britain. They are set in an Arthurian world. Of Arthure and of Merlin is a Middle English retelling of the Old French Prose Merlin, or Lestoire de Merlin and tells the story of Merlin's birth and boyhood, of Uther Pendragon's struggle against King Vortigern and King Arthur's subsequent struggles in his first year of kingship. In it, along with Merlin's numerous disguises, King Arthur himself assumes a disguise near the end of this Middle English romance, in a sequence of battles with giants that quickly takes on mythological proportions. Sir Tristrem is a master of disguise as well, as he devises ever more elaborate schemes to see the lovely Isode, King Mark's wife; and, like Torrent of Portyngale, he is also a giant killer. King Arthur defeats a giant in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a horrendous giant who eats children and lives at the top of Mont San Michel in northern France.
Disguise, exchange of identity, the concealment of identity and origins hidden. Hannah's interest is clear. The child Le Freine grows up not knowing who her parents are, having been found inside the hollow trunk of an ash tree. The Earl of Toulouse conceals his identity on two occasions, both of which are central to the plot. The tale of Havelok the Dane continues this obsession, recounting the story of a Danish prince who is rescued from death and taken to England where he lives for a while as a kitchen servant in Lincoln Castle, before a mysterious mark on his shoulder singles him out as being a king's son; in the same way, perhaps, that the new Apis bull was recognised in Ancient Egypt, or the Dali Lhama more recently in Tibet? To complete the quartet, King Horn tells of a young man who arrives at a land from far in the west, and assumes a new name.
But this is only the hors d'oeuvre. Southampton was a thriving port in Anglo-Saxon England, when nearby Winchester was the princial seat of government, and Sir Bevis of Hampton tells the story of a young boy who is banished from this town by his mother, goes overseas and grows up in the Middle East. Bevis, now a young man, while entering a city whose description makes it sound decidedly like a city of the Otherworld, carying his own death warrant, is incarcerated underground for seven years, after which time he manages to escape, crosses a sea on horseback, encounters a giant - yes, another one - and then inexplicably refuses to reveal his true identity, even when he encounters those who were once his intimate friends. This same, seemingly inexplicable behaviour forms a major episode in Guy of Warwick, when the eponymous hero is wandering about the world as a pilgrim and meets with his former comrade-in-arms but refuses to tell him who he is. And at the end of this Romance, and back again in Warwick, Guy meets his wife and even refuses to tell her who he is. Well, not the end exactly, for this Middle English Romance, which is firmly based upon an Anglo-Norman French original, continues the tale with a story of Guy's son Raynbrun, who rescues a friend of his father's who has been imprisoned by enchantment in a world beneath a hill.