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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: I

§ 13. The Tale of Gamelyn and The Tale of Beryn

The Tale of Gamelyn may count for something on the native English side against the many borrowed French romances. It is a story of the youngest son cruelly treated by his tyrannical elder brother, and coming to his own again with the help of the king of outlaws. Thomas Lodge made a novel out of it, and kept a number of incidents—the defeat of the wrestler (the “champioun” as he is called), the loyalty of Adam Spencer and the meeting with the outlaws—and so these found their way to Shakespeare, and, along with them, the spirit of the greenwood and its freedom. The Tale of Gamelyn is As You Like It, without Rosalind or Celia; the motive is, naturally, much simpler than in the novel or the play: merely the poetical justice of the young man’s adventures and restoration, with the humorous popular flouting of respectability in the opposition of the liberal outlaws to the dishonest elder brother and the stupid abbots and priors.

  • “Ow!” seyde Gamelyn, “so brouke I my bon
  • Now I have aspyed that freendes have I non;
  • Cursed mot he worthe, bothe fleisch and blood
  • That ever do priour or abbot any good!”
  • The verse is, more or less, the same as that of Robert of Gloucester, and of the southern Legends of Saints; nowhere is it used with more freedom and spirit than in Gamelyn:
  • Then seide the maister, kyng of outlawes
  • “What seeke ye, yonge men, under woode-schawes?”
  • Gamelyn answerde the king with his croune,
  • “He moste needes walke in woode that may not walke in towne:
  • Sir, we walke not heer non harm for to do,
  • But if we meete with a deer to schute therto,
  • As men that ben hungry and mow no mete fynde,
  • And ben harde bystad under woode-lynde.”
  • Gamelyn is found only in MSS. of The Canterbury Tales; Skeat’s conjecture is a fair one, that it was kept by Chaucer among his papers, to be worked up, some day, into The Yeoman’s Tale.

    Another romance, less closely attached to Chaucer’s work, the Tale of Beryn (called The Merchant’s Second Tale) is also, like Gamelyn, rather exceptional in its plot. It is a comic story, and comes from the east: how Beryn with his merchandise was driven by a storm at sea to a strange harbour, a city of practical jokers; and how he was treated by the burgesses there, and hard put to it to escape from their knavery; and how he was helped against the sharpers by a valiant cripple, Geoffrey, and shown the way to defeat them by tricks more impudent than their own.

    The verse of Beryn is of the same sort as in Gamelyn, but more uneven; often very brisk, but sometimes falling into the tune of the early Elizabethan doggerel drama:

  • After these two brethren, Romulus and Romus,
  • Julius Cesar was Emperour, that rightful was of domus.
  • But on the other hand there are good verses like these:
  • For after misty cloudes ther cometh a cler sonne
  • So after bale cometh bote, whoso bide conne.
  • There are, obviously, certain types and classes among the romances; medieval literature generally ran in conventional moulds, and its clients accepted readily the well-known turns of a story and the favourite characters. But, at the same time, in reading the romances one has a continual sense of change and of experiment; there is no romantic school so definite and assured as to make any one type into a standard; not even Chaucer succeeded in doing what Chrètien had done two centuries earlier in France. The English romancers have generally too little ambition, and the ambitious and original writers are too individual and peculiar to found any proper school, or to establish in England a medieval pattern of narrative that might be compared with the modern novel.

  • Sir Thopas he bereth the flour,
  • and the companions of Sir Thopas, who are the largest group, never think of competing seriously with the great French authors of the twelfth century, the masters, as they must be reckoned, of medieval romantic poetry. The English, like the Italians, were too late; they missed the twelfth century and its influences and ideals, or only took them up when other and still stronger forces were declaring themselves. They failed to give shape in English to the great medieval romantic themes; they failed in Sir Tristrem; and the Middle Ages were at an end before Sir Thomas Malory brought out the noblest of all purely medieval English romances, translated from “the French book” that was then nearly three centuries old.